Headlines suggest that America's claims to global Top-dom are on shaky ground these days. But here at home we know that we are a country of Incredibles, and each one of us is a winner. Evidently, the only thing we winners enjoy even more than having it our way is watching strangers on television hustle to have it their way, mowing down obstacles in their path. It matters little whether the challenges on shows like Survivor, Project Runway, American Idol, or Top Chef involve building a fire, sewing frocks for dogs, singing Barry Manilow covers, or creating appetizers with ingredients from a vending machine. Instead, a gleeful (or better yet, demented) onscreen expression of dog-eat-dog spirit is enough to unite us average-schmo Tops at home in the common cause of rooting for one favored hottie or another to blow all the other hotties away.
As the gods of imitative programming prefer it, the premiere of the new creativity-based throw-down Top Design coincides with the new season excuse me, cycle of the old hair-dryer-based tournament America's Next Top Model. And that's good news for students of competition reality series and fans of time-lapse photography involving car traffic in L.A. Because between the two shows, a viewer can get a top-drawer education in two classic American styles of winning: On Top Design, the prize goes for doing something, while ANTM demonstrates the even more irresistible national notion that a winner just has to pose, to emote, to pretend to be. And while she's at it, be skinny.
Top Design is, of course, Bravo's successor to Top Chef, which is, in turn, Bravo's successor to the classier-than-both Project Runway. And as a third-generation production out of the canny, witty Bravo factory of gay-straight-bi-trans-friendly lifestyle infotainment, the series arrives with the benefit of an already successful template and the constraints of the same. Boyish, singsongy designer Todd Oldham serves as host where anesthetized celeb Padma Lakshmi and fertile Teuton Heidi Klum presided before. The judges include larky design entrepreneur Jonathan Adler, steely magazine editor Margaret Russell, and dolled-up interiors princess Kelly Wearstler where Tom Colicchio or Nina Garcia previously glowered.
The competing designers are given wacky clients (a ''mystery celebrity'' who turns out to be Alexis Arquette, a bunch of kids), wacky themes, wacky deadlines, wacky budgets. Product placement is so casually brazen as to be amusing, for those who agree not to be appalled. Each challenger arrives with his or her personality groomed for easy identification: the bossy girl, the Midwestern family man, the gay elf, the attractive older woman (by which Bravo means older than 30), the guy-who-looks-like-the-other-guy. Top Design is, truth to tell, a bit worn-out, the conflicts as overused as the Asian-y, lime green hues showing up on too many of the contestants' walls and throw pillows. Plus, I keep expecting Todd-the-camp-counselor to announce that it's time for volleyball, or arts and crafts.
But at least, once past the bickering, the stressing-out, and the boasting about looking out for No. 1, these aspirants have got to produce something. And we can see and judge the somethings they come up with for ourselves (as opposed to taste for ourselves, which was impossible with Top Chef, no matter how fiercely Marcel worked his mousse). Each competitor can swagger up the wazoo for the benefit of the TV camera, but each also has either got the goods or not. I like that in a creative competition; it's so elegantly mid-century modern! C+