Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

The designers take inspiration from the famous doll collection for a miniature model runway show

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September 19, 2014 at 02:31 AM EDT

Just in case you hadn’t seen the previews for this week’s episode—featuring Sandhya’s suspected breakdown—the “previously on” reminds us how she grates against the other contestants. Her “I don’t refer to any other designer” business is not received well. No surprise.

What is semi-surprising is the lack of actual drama this year. A few designers have been given a heavy edit to appear as the characters we’ve grown to expect: Mitchell and Korina got the villain treatment in the premiere. But Mitchell turned out to be pretty harmless—and well-loved based on the hugs he got when he was booted. And while Korina has definitely had her nasty moments, she hasn’t really emerged as a true nemesis, like Kenley or Santino.

On the other hand, there hasn’t really been an “overly emotional” character either. Sandhya has often been painted as sensitive—and she is—but she’s probably also exhausted and confused. Getting bad critiques from Tim, shifty looks from her co-contestants, and love from the judges simultaneously must be tough.

All that is to say: Maybe Project Runway‘s casting directors should get some tips from the gang over at Utopia. That’s a show that knows how to cast dramatic characters. Yes—first and foremost, Runway should be about the designs. But for a season that was advertised with “Turn Down for What” karaoke from Tim and Heidi, is it too much to expect a little more pop from the designers themselves?

But where the contestants are lacking, these challenges are picking up the slack. American Girl Doll Challenge: It’s happening.

I can’t decide which is better: Alexander admitting to his complete familiarity with the American Girl doll brand, or Korina telling us she had Samantha. (If you know the dolls, you get why this is perfect.) Also great: Tim Gunn’s ability to get excited regardless of the sponsor. Whether it’s the WWE, Saturn, Red Robin, or American Girl dolls, that man knows how to sell a challenge.

The designers seem genuinely interested in what their task will be—and that feeling doesn’t even diminish when their tween models emerge. Each designer must create a modern and fashionable look inspired by the Beforever doll that their assigned model carries. (Project Runway history question: How often do designers get assigned in challenges like this, rather than winners selecting or the button bag?)

Emily is bursting at the seams. She’s the only one with extensive experience designing children’s clothing; her line has an Etsy cult following. This should be her challenge to lose (spoiler alert: it’s not).

NEXT: American twee

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Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano guide undiscovered designers through the harrowing rites of fashion.
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