Monday, August 11, 2008

The TV Set: Not Without My "Runway"

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My heart broke a little when it was revealed that "Project Runway" gave style-friendly Bravo a Klum-style, two-cheek kiss auf. When next we see the fashionable reality show franchise it will be in its new digs on house frau net Lifetime. Girls, housecoats at the ready! It makes you wonder what exactly Harvey Weinstein—Hollywood movie mogul turned reality television hitmaker—was smoking. Pimping out the beloved, chic, upwardly mobile "Project Runway" and putting it out on the stroll alongside the likes of Meredith Baxter Birney is wrong on a level not seen since Whitney took up with Bobby. Not that I don't have an appreciation for what Mer does. It takes serious versatility to convincingly morph Elyse Keaton into your quintessential crazy white lady. Really, Mer. You're second to none. Since you've come around it's like Tiffani Amber Thiesen who?

But seriously—Lifetime? Everyone knows it's one of those channels you turn to when life feels unsunny. It's the television equivalent of drinking alone, in the afternoon…in a very dark linen closet. This is the channel you can count on when you need to assure yourself that going through your boyfriend's phone wasn't really that big of a deal because look at what that homicidal Marcia Gay Harden is up to. The only fierce thing you're sure to be wowed by in the Lifetime neck of the woods is the psychotic determination of jilted men and women unfazed by restraining orders or the advent of the untapered jean.

I know my fellow reality show connoisseurs are nodding in somber agreement. To us, Bravo is the Johnny to our Baby. Just because we liked a genre of television that had been ghettoized—"Real World" producer Bunim Murray, how do you live with yourselves?--didn't mean Bravo was going to let anyone put us in a corner. We didn't have to feel dirty to keep it real. Most Bravo reality show cast members—see PR, "Top Chef" and "Flipping Out"—stand in stark contrast to the MTV, VH-1, E! template of prefab dunces outfitted in whiskered denim, fake tans and who enjoy what can only be described as a "distant" relationship with the English language. Don't forget the clincher, the biggest prereq of them all—they have to be completely devoid of any discernible talent. Sorry Kardashians, being more vapid than all the rest doesn't count.

Yes, Bravo is quite literally our bright light. Their signature white backdrops used for show promos signal to the audience that style and taste live here. The look is an eye pleasing, clean, modern, art gallery aesthetic. Bravo appeals to the Banana Republic/J. Crew meets quirky NYC flea market find demographic, or at the very least people who like the idea of quirky NYC flea market finds. The network's slogan implores you to "Watch What Happens" and why wouldn't you? Their shows reliably and deliciously press all your drama buttons—Jeff Lewis, how goes it?—but it is within the context of the chaos of creative endeavor. You're impressed by the participants not because of how many people they're capable of hooking up with in a single season, but because of the to die-for party dress they were able to design McGyver style out of coffee filters and vacuum cleaner bags.

This isn't to say that Bravo is incapable of an abomination or two. The highly unpalatable "Date My Ex: Jo and Slade" comes to mind. Jo is totally Bravo's version of the ghetto fabulous VH-1 personality "New York". But for the most part Bravo excels at making us feel like it's okay to like reality shows because it's a genre that is evolving as we do. It appeals to that slightly more cultured side of you that started to emerge in earnest after you graduated from college and discovered cooking beyond the confines of your microwave and it will keep appealing to you long after you've got your feet firmly planted in the middle of adulthood.

Now there's word that the situation is even worse than originally feared. Magical Elves, the production team responsible for "Project Runway", has bolted leaving Harvey to make a deal with the devil themselves—Bunim Murray—and it gets grosser. The show is moving to LA. I can see poor Tim Gunn now trying desperately to lure the "designers" out of the hottub with a bottle of Jagermeister, urging them to make it work. After all, guest judge Heidi Montag is expecting a frock guaranteed to land her the cover of US Weekly.

The TV Set: Chef Cool

For those hardy, remote jockeying souls still out there searching for a hero to save them from televised atrocities that can only happen during summer, Bruno from "Celebrity Circus" comes to mind, I give you Bourdain, Anthony Bourdain. His Travel Channel show, "No Reservations" (Mondays, 10pm), about food in (mostly) far away places is back, baby. That's right. No more baby borrowing for you. Am I the only one that finds "The Baby Borrowers" creepy? This undoubtedly qualifies me as a card carrying fuddy duddy, but I find it impossible to get over the fact that NBC has managed to get away with sticking teenage couples in a house with one another, cavalierly showing them getting in the same bed at night. We're a long way from the demure twin bedliness of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo. Where's the Christian right when you need them?

But I digress. Back to Bourdain who has dropped in on this badness, an unlikely Hancock-like champion with a fistful of new episodes for the perpetually re-runned, those who have had their dignity rassled away from them by a Gladiator, and those of us that have come to the conclusion that perhaps it'd be better if we didn't survive this Japanese game show. Better death than to be confronted with your glowering reflection in the morning, who, once so trusting now eyes you with wary suspicion and disappointment. Brushing one's teeth has become so…awkward.

Yes, "No Reservations" is exactly what is needed. Bourdain, rebel celebrity chef without a cause, is kind of like the Judd Nelson character in "The Breakfast Club" when compared to his fellow culinary boldfaced names. This of course makes Bobby Flay the All American Emilio Estevez character and Rachael Ray Molly Ringwald's popular girl Claire. He's simply not like the others. And he makes it clear he thinks the others, with their "Bam!" and "Yum-o", are pretty dopey. He's not there to make you feel more comfortable, or to offer a cooking lesson so that one day you can grow up to cook just like Tony! Most of all, he's not constantly trying to convince you of what good pals you and he are. He's got enough faith in you to trust that you've got friends; you're just looking for some good television.

Even if you're unfamiliar with Bourdain, from the onset it becomes clear that "No Reservations" is not your mother's cooking show, mostly because it isn't a "cooking" show at all. It eschews the cleanly confines of the customary pimped out television chef kitchen that boasts every modern convenience known to man in favor of the road less traveled. It is instead an hour-long travelogue celebrating cuisine narrated in the first person by Bourdain. It's a snarky (mmm…snark) narrative brimming with colorful brushstrokes of language to explain the backstories of the food, people and the land at hand. Happily, Bourdain is not so cool as to be above falling in love with a country he's profiling as he clearly did last season in Indonesia when he considered "going bamboo" as he put it, tempted to hang it up, go permanently off the grid and heed the siren call to which many expats have surrendered.

Thank goodness he didn't so that we may go on living vicariously through him as this long-legged blade of a man lopes across the continents. There he is, by the campfire with Argentine cowboys, engaging in what has become an expected practice of pickling himself with quite a few shots of the local, often homegrown, spirit. And now, looking less than thrilled in Romania—a word to beginners, the episodes when Bourdain is less than thrilled by a place are just as good a time, if not better than episodes when he's enchanted. It is important to note however that Bourdain is never an "ugly American". He's quite the opposite, grateful and humbled by the generosity and culinary skill of his hosts making him an unlikely good-will ambassador. He's a lover of streetfood and fearless in the face of dishes worthy of "Fear Factor". Still-beating cobra heart, anyone?

Needless to say, if you're thinking of tagging along with Anthony Bourdain, worrywart handwashers need not apply. That stuff's for squares.

The TV Set: Weekdays with Wendy

There once was a genre called morning talk, where the voices all sounded the same. The must-have accessory was an oversized coffee mug and its seventh circle was presided over by a relic. She is like a Medusa, sporting a cacophonous crown of co-hosts writhing to express their View. But then, from the far away land of urban drivetime radio, a voice, asks quite simply "How you doin'?"

The voice belongs to Wendy Williams, whose eponymous talk show debuted last week to impressive ratings. Williams' "how you doin'" is less Joey Tribiani and more fabulous drag queen. Regular listeners of her popular nationally syndicated radio show, "The Wendy Williams Experience", know it well as it is regularly employed there not only as greeting, but to playfully indicate when she finds something or someone to be a little—or a lot—homosexual. In watching "The Wendy Williams Show" (Weekdays, 10am, Fox) "how you doin'" gets lots of play throughout the hour by members of her enthusiastic studio audience, who after sharing their name and city, clearly get a thrill out of taking a shot at this signature Wendyism.

It's a slightly cheesy, party atmosphere, as indicated by the disco ball in her title graphics and the girls-in-the-club "oooo oooo" shouted by the audience going in and out of break. The show's look is not expensive. The dishes of colorful, fruity candy like Skittles that are on the table for her celebrity guests completes the low budget vibe lest you forget you're watching Fox. But I'm willing to forgive the show its cheesiness because it's such a good time. This is not the morning talk show we've gotten used to and it's delicious diving in, like drinking champagne for breakfast. Immerse yourself in the over-the-topness that is Wendy Williams, from her well over six foot frame (thanks to her size 12, 4 inch heels), to her wigalicious blonde tresses and surgically enhanced attributes.

At forty-four years old Wendy is the hip hop generation's Cindy Adams and Dear Abbey rolled into one. Most of the hour allows her to showcase these strengths. The first segment is dedicated to "Hot Topics" a blatant and acknowledged rip off of the aforementioned relic's "The View" in which Williams discusses the latest celebrity "oh no, they didn't's". Unlike "The View's" Hot Topics which can get loud and political, Williams says plenty without saying much—a well-timed mischievous look here, a pursed lip there. Wendy knows how to get her point across.

Her weakest segments have been the "celebrity" interviews with C and D list names like Brooke Hogan and Kim Kardashian. Wendy's all warm and fuzzy here, missing the edge that made her celebrity interviews such ear candy on the radio. Some of that naughtier Wendy did come through during her much buzzed about interview with "Apprentice" villain, Omarosa. Things went from bad to worse as the two traded thinly-veiled insults through clenched, teeth-flashing smiles and loud audience reaction. This is not the kind of thing you see on "Rachael Ray". What a nice change of pace.

All that aside, the real fun is to be had during the advice segments that are sprinkled throughout the hour. This is Williams at her most comfortable, letting loose with the Wendy wisdom. She is refreshingly pragmatic without crossing the line into Dr. Phil territory (see preachy and self-righteous buffoonery). Despite her silly, ostensibly superfluous demeanor it becomes abundantly clear that Wendy believes just as strongly in personal responsibility as she does in the cult of celebrity.

This brings me to a final Wendyism—the "Friend In My Head"—someone, usually a celebrity, you know you'd be best friends with if not for the minor complication that they don't know you exist. It's so nice when someone puts a label on your psychosis. Guess who's got a new FIMH BFF?