By Missy Schwartz
Updated May 08, 2009 at 07:00 AM EDT
Credit: Barbara Nitke/NBC

Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but boy can it make for some lousy television. Case in point: tonight’s premiere of Bravo’s The Fashion Show, a.k.a. Since We Lost ‘Project Runway’ to Lifetime (Argh!) We Came Up With This New Series That Is Totally Just As Awesome as the Original — Really! Please Watch!

I’d like to give The Fashion Show the benefit of the doubt and allow that subsequent episodes might improve. But what we saw this evening wasn’t pretty: an obvious — and obviously inferior — Runway copycat in which 15 aspiring designers compete for a $125,000 grand prize and for the chance…not to show their collection at Fashion Week, but to sell their line “in a retail market.” (If that’s not conveniently vague, I don’t know what is.)

All the familiar elements were there: outsized personalities (We get it, Merlin: You’re flamboyant!), clashing egos, and outrageously hideous designs. (Harem pants as a must-have? Maybe on Planet Princess Jasmine.) But what was missing was that mix of playful and panicked workroom magic that Runway conjures up every season and the inimitable Tim Gunn enhances. If there ever was any doubt as to who the real star of Runway is, The Fashion Show put it to rest tonight. With all due respect to co-hosts/-judges Isaac Mizrahi and Kelly Rowland, their presence lacked the zesty je ne sais quoi that Gunn exudes so effortlessly. Furthermore, unlike Heidi Klum’s signature sendoff, Mizrahi’s version — “We’re just not buying it. Bye-bye, darling” — felt contrived.

What do you think? Is The Fashion Show destined to become passé or does it have potential?

addCredit(“Barbara Nitke/NBC”)