Sixteen-year-old Samantha walks onto a rooftop deck in lower Manhattan, the brilliant brick-and-steel skyline encircling her like a hug. Her eyes widen and she gasps, causing her deep-set dimples to sink even further within the hollows of her cheeks, like baby hedgehogs rolling into balls when startled by the morning sun. Samantha has lived in New York City her entire life. This is her first time seeing its majestic skyline from a rooftop.
Samantha is one of the 12 teenaged designers competing in the first season of Project Runway Junior (premiering Nov. 12 on Lifetime), the spinoff of the series that transformed Heidi Klum from a supermodel into an international business magnate, and made a design-school teacher into the most beloved good guy on TV. Tim Gunn remains mentor and demigod to the junior designers, while supermodel Hannah Davis fills Klum’s stilettos as host. The judges are a trio of millennial megastars: designer and Project Runway season 4 winner Christian Siriano; purple-haired, snark-loving Kelly Osbourne; and Aya Kanai, the executive fashion director of Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines. Early-era Project Runway had a devoted following. It was the most talked-about reality show during seasons 1 through 5ish. But when it moved from Bravo to Lifetime, ditched fashion-centric New York for Los Angeles, and started plagiarizing itself with all-star seasons and the short-lived Under the Gunn (essentially Project Runway without Heidi Klum), it lost its allure. The reason viewers initially obsessed over Project Runway wasn’t only for the fashion — gaga-worthy as it was — but for its heart. Seeing Gunn urge a self-doubting designer in the midst of an emotional breakdown to do her best anyway, “Darn it!” and then gently comforting her when she was voted off the same week, made him the most crush-worthy father figure in America — at least among the show's several million viewers. When Klum first uttered, “You’re out!” with her all-business German accent, viewers collectively flinched, feeling the pain in poor Daniel Franco’s heart. It was emotional-roller-coaster TV viewing — and instantly addictive.
Project Runway Junior recaptures that spark. It’s humbling to witness teenagers (the show casts 14-to-17-year-olds) — many of whom were likely the “weird” kids in their hometowns, but are considered artists on this show — struggling, surviving, and making it work at a time in their lives when that struggle sums up just about every awkward moment. When 17-year-old Ysabel sees Hannah Davis and says, “I want to be her!” and then buries her own gorgeous face under her hair, my heart breaks a little. The show has the power to remind us jaded adults about what it means to reach for our dreams, embrace our differences, and thrive. But even more realistically, it has the potential to reignite our appetites for truly good reality television, which used to be a thing — but has gone the way of televised music videos — maybe not gone for good, but certainly hard to find. In fact, I think reality-TV producers have had it wrong all along. Watching kids on competitive television is far more interesting than watching adults. Chopped is just another reality food-competition show with snappy judges and mystery ingredients. However, Chopped Junior — now in its second season — is a pressure-cooker for pint-sized chefs (some as young as 11!) to prove their grownup skills on camera (so embarrassing). And when a prepubescent grabs a blowtorch to caramelize carrots, your eyes stay glued to the TV.
Braiden Sunshine and Jeffery Austin, both #TeamGwen contestants on The Voice, are highly skilled vocalists and compelling in their own ways. But don't you root just a little bit harder for Sunshine, the 15-year-old curly top with the voice of a rock god?
Project Runway Junior (shot over the summer, so no one misses school) also avoids the seriously concerning trappings of shows like Dance Moms, with its overbearing stage parents and borderline abusive instructors. It avoids the cloying nature of shows like Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, on which forced smiles and manufactured cuteness all but erase the kids’ natural charm. And let’s not underestimate the potential for hormone-fueled drama. While the PRJ designers were all hugs and solidarity during the first episode, it’s only a matter of time before these teenagers start to act their ages.
Back on the rooftop in lower Manhattan, Samantha meets her fellow designers. They include Zachary, whose skill and exuberance recalls first-look Siriano; Peytie, the bohemian beach girl who embodies '70s-era Goldie Hawn; and Jaxson, who feeds cows on his family’s Kansas farm by day and dreams up pleather minidresses for, as he says, “badass women,” in his free time. They take in the scenery, admire each other’s sense of style, and make small talk as teenagers without cell phones are forced to do (noticeably no one has a smartphone, which I’m certain was intentional). When Gunn and Davis arrive, the group of budding sophisticates turns into a fan mob, jumping up and down and cupping their flushed cheeks in their hands. These are the kids who actually got the golden ticket to realize their dreams and be temporarily adopted by Gunn, and they’re ecstatic. Seconds later, Gunn smiles, then announces that their first challenge begins “right now.” He's met with a sea of wide eyes, full of fear and uncertainty. It makes you want to yell at the TV, “Go!” After a fast-paced run through Mood to grab fabric — neoprene and shimmer are big — hours sweating over their Brother sewing machines, and more than one emotional meltdown (expertly calmed by Gunn, whose intellispeak is effectively giving these youngsters a vocabulary lesson), the kid designers present their first runway show. Samantha wins. Her edgy-chic streetwear separates perfectly capture the inspiration for the challenge: her own birthplace of New York City, which she’s probably seen more of on this show than she has in her lifetime. Oh, the places they’ll go.