Last night, Bravo’s interior-decorating contest Top Design aired its season finale. Not that you’d know it: Though the climaxes of the hip network’s reality shows for creative types have generated mild (Top Chef) to major (Project Runway) buzz, nobody’s watercoolers are atwitter today with gossip about whether Matt’s monochromatic loft deserved to win. In fact, the only chatter we heard amounted to an anemic, “Is that still on?” And with good reason. Top Design stank.
It shouldn’t have. Top Design had everything going for it: a respected host in Todd Oldham, a charming head judge in Jonathan Adler, a diverse cast, and a visual medium that lends itself well to playing along at home. It should have been a slam-dunk Project Runway for furniture junkies. Instead, Top Design turned out to be the televisual equivalent of buying a great Marc Jacobs knockoff from Forever 21 and then having it fall apart in the wash.
The most egregiously cheap imitation in Top Design was its host’s lame catchphrase. Where Runway’s Heidi Klum dismisses people with a sweetly organic “auf wiedersehen,” Jonathan Adler is forced to paste on a grin and choke down the bile as he coos a contrived, “See you later, decorator.” The poor man probably can’t leave a bar without some drunk jerk yelling that after him. Perhaps because he knows that inane attempt at a catchphrase is coming, Adler seems too tense to let fly during judging, unlike Project Runway’s relaxed and preternaturally pithy Michael Kors. We watch shows like these for the moments when the judges really let the contestants have it (remember when Kors told a sour-faced Alison Kelly that she’d made her model look like a brioche?), but Adler’s most stinging complaint was that one of the designers didn’t fully understand how awesome paint swatches are. As wounds go, that’s not even a paper cut.
The uninspired projects also posed problems. With limits that were generally only budgetary, we got week after week of things like building a cabana, styling a space for an Elle Décor cover, reorganizing a garage, and other basic challenges that never felt like real, taxing tests. Indeed, the finalists’ last challenge was the icing on the burnt cake: two months and more than $150,000 to design a room for themselves. Is that even hard? A first-grader could design a dream room with that kind of time and cash. Give us that intriguing challenge where the contestants must create a suite using only items they found dumpster-diving. Otherwise, it’s just self-important people whining about their aesthetic and shopping for furniture. You can experience that yourself with a trip to Restoration Hardware.
Worst of all, though, Top Design wasted Oldham. The cherished Tim Gunn is the heart of Runway, visiting his charges mid-challenge to offer sage advice and sometimes gently send them in a new direction. Oldham’s participation lacks that necessary tough-love component. His mild interest, in the form of idle questions that get pat answers, made him seem lost and adrift.
And without a Tim Gunn type to cling to, Top Design lacked not only heart and soul, but the most important aspect of a show about creative endeavors: inspiration. Runway makes us want to clean out our closets and shop and stalk Tim. Top Chef has us ready to improvise in the kitchen (peanut butter and beef are two great tastes, so why not see if they taste great together?). But all Top Design made us do was say “auf wiedersehen” and change the channel. The Fug Girls