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''Project Runway'': Jeffrey is accused of cheating

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Project Runway
Project Runway: Mark Abrahams

”Project Runway”: Jeffrey is accused of cheating

Rarely have viewers of Project Runway been more at the mercy of the show’s producers and editors — and of their keep-’em-guessing manipulations — than we were this week, in an episode that officially existed to showcase the season’s four finalists as they prepared their collections for Fashion Week, but actually offered lesson after lesson in how manhandled the ”reality” behind reality-competition shows really is. In this hour — unlike on Jeffrey’s dresses — all the seams showed.

Let’s start with the controversy — although it’s not clear how much of one there really is. After having had two months and $8000 apiece to create 12 ”looks,” Jeffrey, Uli, Laura, and Michael reconvened in New York for finishing touches and fittings, and Laura, convinced that Jeffrey’s sewing was too perfect to have been his own work, took her suspicions to Tim, who told the producers, who promised an investigation, while Jeffrey swore innocence. Good TV? Not really. Since the possible rule breaking involved something none of us can judge for ourselves, we were jerked around by what felt like an artificial cliff-hanger. Jeffrey’s an egomaniac, so he must have cheated! No, wait — Laura’s a mean bitch, so she’s just making trouble! And in the scenes from next week, Tim gathers the designers together and says ”Unfortunately…” and then Jeffrey looks sad, so he must have been kicked off the show!

Or, you know, maybe they just want us to watch the finale. There’s a fairly clear line between intriguing the audience and treating us like slack-jawed dopes, and the determination of this episode to turn Project Runway into a clash of personalities rather than a contest of talents crossed it. The conflict felt over-engineered (what exactly was Jeffrey doing out of the room while Laura talked about him to the other designers?); Laura and Tim’s ”let’s talk out on the balcony” felt more like a producer’s idea than a found moment; and the whole showdown, especially after last week’s reunion nonevent involving Keith, had the overfamiliar taste of this season’s desire to showcase conflict without ever really getting its hands dirty.

That left only a little time for the actual work: As Tim visited Michael in Atlanta, Uli in Miami, Jeffrey in L.A., and Laura in New York, each designer’s challenge was painted in colors as primary as the red on Tim’s shiny convertible. Michael’s collection is not ”cohesive” and needs to be. Uli’s collection is ”too one-note” and needs not to be. Laura’s collection is ”too old” and needs to be younger. And Jeffrey’s bowl of porridge is just the right temperature, but he may have had too much help in the kitchen.

While Tim hauls out his abacus and pores over those receipts, let’s recap his excellent adventures: In Atlanta: Loved Michael, loved his braces, loved his family, loved the sight of Tim standing in a prayer circle. In Miami: Loved Uli’s water view. Loved her enthusiasm. Loved learning that Miami Vice aired in East Germany. In Los Angeles: Loved Jeffrey’s Posture of Calculated Humility; my goodness, they’re working overtime to make him sympathetic. Loved seeing Harrison in the flesh rather than on Jeffrey’s neck. And love the fact that Jeffrey’s wife said the adorable little kid was ”Jeff’s best design.” (Agreed.) In New York: Loved Laura’s bravery in risking the wrath of the entire population of real-estate-obsessed NYC by showing us her fabulous apartment. Loved her attitude about the kids; if she loses, maybe she can be Secretary of Defense. And loved the fact that although her kids get interesting names like Peik and Truman, the turtle is…Frank. How’d that happen?

Official judgment about the clothes will have to wait until next week; meanwhile, let’s make some unofficial judgments. Didn’t your heart sink when both Michael and Uli used the word ”safari” as inspiration? At least they were on different safaris: Michael appears to have taken the Booty and Bling Adventure Ride, while Uli’s glitter-and-bones look indicated that eighth-row center at the Broadway production of The Lion King is about as close to an actual jungle as she’s ever been. Laura’s clothes were rich and dramatic and represented a unified, adult esthetic. We’ll just forget the appearance of that I-ate-some-bad-spinach nightmare dress that Tim called a ”chartreuse popsicle.” It never happened. And Jeffrey? Well, if you’re going to call one of your own outfits a ”sideshow freak,” you’re pretty much doing my job for me. But all the emphasis on that bizarre green-and-white-striped Hilda-the-Hippo-goes-to-a-party dress and matching mega-ugly overnight bag may have been intended to distract us from the fact that the rest of his collection looked extremely good. To give credit where it’s due, Jeffrey’s inspiration — Japanese ghost and demon stories — was exactly the kind of out-of-left-field thing that occurs to a real designer; he’s not afraid to follow his own esthetic impulses, wherever they take him, and it looks as if this time they may have taken him on a journey much more interesting than a safari. But just when I was starting to like him, he turned right back into Dr. Creepy, with that collection of Susan Anton-looking wigs and his bizarre statement that he wants his models to be ”a blank slate for the clothes.” Yes, Jeff, that’s what women want — to be overshadowed by what they’re wearing.

What do you think? Is Jeffrey out? Is Jeffrey in? Or (brace yourself) will Jeffrey win?

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