'Runway' leaves reality show narcissism on the tarmac

ONCE YOU'VE caught her drinking or dancing or playing cards, the fundamentalist finds herself rationalizing. "There are degrees of sin. I only partook a little bit, and very responsibly. It's not illegal, is it?"

So I've been watching "Project Runway," which even my hoity-toity friends agree is a respectable grade of reality TV. PBS's "Frontier House" and "An American Family" get the most snob points. "Project Runway" rates just above "The Amazing Race" because Jerry Bruckheimer isn't involved in making "Project Runway." They can all look down on the screw-your-buddy mind game shows and the dating horror caravans.

One reason I prefer "Project Runway" is that it interacts with my reality instead of creating an insular reality within the show. You can see that in the travel and PBS reality shows, too. We often razz docutainment participants for their narcissism, but the real narcissism in reality TV lies in the puffed-up game show cocoons that advance or eliminate contestants entirely on sabotage, self-promotion and other mind games within

the show.

"Project Runway" actually requires creativity and skills transferable to my real world. Digression: Sometimes the Bravo channel's marketing doesn't click with our consensus reality, though, as in this ad: "Now you have a reason to celebrate: All of Season 3 of 'Project Runway' in a Fourth of July marathon!" What kind of traitor thinks that a fashion design TV show marathon merits more festivities than the founding of our nation? For shame! The FCC and Homeland Security shall hear of this via a crackpot e-mail!

But wait, there's more — more strategies for justifying my viewing habits (other than constructing idiotic, self-serving ladders of show quality). The lessons "Runway" has taught me, for example.

Host Heidi Klum and player Laura Bennett both participated while several months pregnant. This reminded me, for the purposes of my own career and family planning, that pregnant women can do lots even while they're huge with child.

Even as "Runway" helps me learn to appreciate style in clothing, I find the majority of clothes created on the show unwearable and ridiculous. Zillions of overly revealing skirts and dresses, nearly no pants, forget about pockets, and evidently menswear is some dark continent. On the rare occasions that designers serve as models, and therefore must create clothes for men, they and the judges commiserate over how rare and difficult it is. That sounds like utter crap. Please e-mail me if it isn't.

Here's an idea: just do it. Then you'll learn a skill that no one else evidently thinks is as important as frippery for females, and you can carve out a niche as the magical wizard who can make clothes for the other half of humanity!

"Runway" reminds me to look for those small relative advantages. If I can accomplish a slicker fit-and-finish or if my color palette always amazes, I should remember those strengths and use them to make up for my weaknesses.

Even a little slip under stress will get noticed, so be gracious, always. Yes, reality TV editors are unfair and take shouts and tears out of context. Everyone who ever meets you does the same thing. Out of our glimpses of you, we will construct an easy narrative.

But the biggest lesson: Take defeat with dignity.

The "Runway" designers are under more pressure than I am, and they're on national TV, and they fail or succeed based on meeting arbitrary aesthetic criteria on two-day projects. They constantly deal with fear of failure, and more than that, of being fired. And paralysis in the face of that fear, or once they've been fired, does no good at all.

Failure or success is not a complete measure of personal quality or worthiness; it just tells us whether the individual matched up with that environment. When I watch "Runway," I grow to like some of the players, and sometimes the people I like get booted. That's just how it goes.

It's a narrative reinforcement for the thing you always hear, which is that almost everyone's gotten fired or laid off at some point, and that it often happens to people who later succeed.

If I do succeed — great! But on "Runway," as in life, one gets about a week to bask. Then, back to work.

We have this stereotype that reality shows are about decadence and are a sign of the decline of civilization. But the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism are alive and well in "Runway" and other reality game shows. The fundie inside me nods, pleased.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.