Fashion Star: TV Review

Ben Silverman returns to NBC with a crass take on the reality fashion genre.

NBC tries to give the fashion show reality competition genre a makeover.

You know how, after a season of Project Runway, you're left with a little anxiety about which of your favorite budding designers will actually get their collection produced and have an actual career rather than a TV moment? Well, NBC's Fashion Star is an elimination show that eliminates the guesswork by having department stores either buy or reject the work on the spot. Once it's bought -- through the miracle of time-delay television -- you can actually go out the next day and buy it yourself.

And then everybody's happy, right? Well, maybe not viewers.

In reality television, as in real life, bigger is not always better. For evidence, look no further than The X Factor, which did its best to outdo American Idol with bigger sets, more judges, more elaborate rules and more life-changing prizes before Simon Cowell seemed to realize he had a mess on his hands.

Given the staying power of Runway, Lifetime's highly entertaining fashion designer elimination show -- now in its ninth season -- it's no surprise that many of the hit show's creators would want to replicate that success with a splashier major network version. Led by trail-blazing producer Ben Silverman -- the former agent-turned-production-company-head-turned-entertainment president of NBC, whose expertise rests more in masterfully "packaging" talent, ideas and advertising than it does in top-shelf programming -- a stellar team including Jane Lipsitz (Runway), Dan Cutforth (Arranged Marriage), Casey Kriley (Top Chef), Rick Ringbakk (The Phone), E.J. Johnston, James Deutch and Elle Macpherson take their shot with Fashion Star but fall in to the same X Factor trap by amping up a tried-and-true format at every conceivable turn until the final product has all the subtlety of a Victoria's Secret runway show.

In fact, the premiere episode begins with lingerie being paraded on the cacophonous catwalk.

"America, right now these beautiful girls are wearing lingerie that I've designed and turned into a multimillion-dollar business," Macpherson, here in the Heidi Klum-like hosting role, tells the camera. "But backstage are some very nervous designers who are hoping to achieve the same success, and this stage represents the biggest moment in their lives."

Once Macpherson gets her infomercial out of the way, it's on to the rest of the show. Which is, not so strangely enough, almost exactly like an infomercial -- just with a lot more glitz.  The "beauty" of Fashion Star may come down to its ballsy, virtually transparent attempt to be one glorified advertisment. It's a commercial for the three stores, wrapped up in a reality competition series. In many ways, it's totally brilliant Ben Silverman. He's always about the money, the packaging, the payout -- not so much the content. So he's basically got the aforementioned infomercial idea here, masquerading as a primetime series. Now, you can either be appalled or impressed by its cynical selling, but for some that will also no doubt be the hook.

The future of television, if you listen to people who drone on about this stuff, is that home viewers will be able to interact with the screen via their cell phones. Shows will have "hot spots" built into them where you can point a cell phone at a dress or maybe a lamp, and a link will pop up on your phone so you can learn more about them and -- so these ultimate product placements would hope -- buy them.

Silverman has quickened the tech on this one by taking it out. Maybe he knows that a lot of people can't program their TiVos or stream content successfully from the Internet, or they're overwhelmed by app choices. So he's gone old school. See it, like it, buy it at Macy's or Saks Fifth Avenue or H&M the next day.

Unlike Runway, we don't spend time with the designers as they scour their brains for inspiration on how to turn candy wrappers into haute couture, or sweat along with them in the workroom as they frantically try to finish hemlines. Fashion Star is in a hurry to get clothes down the runway.

Of course, what would a fashion reality show be without finger-snapping commentary from its judges?

“It looked like the top half of him was going to a rock concert and the bottom half was going line dancing,” fashion icon Nicole Richie tells one incredulous designer.

Joining Richie in the sassy mentor role is Jessica Simpson, the songstress-turned-designer, and John Varvatos, that hip purveyor of rock ’n’ roll style. For the first two episodes, anyway, Michael Kors' title as the queen of fashion snark is not in danger from the likes of these three.

“Those dresses," Varvatos tells another crestfallen designer, "they’re like 4 a.m., and they’re hoochie.”

So far, so Runway. After the celebrity panel has weighed in, three department store buyers — Caprice Willard from Macy's, Terron Schaefer from Sak's Fifth Avenue and Nicole Christie from H&M — are given the chance to bid on the exclusive rights to sell each designer's outfits in their stores.

“This item of clothing can only go in one retail store,” Macphearson explains, as the buyers decide whether to shell out some corporate cash.

Meant to be a moment of truth, the bidding process turns out to be less than thrilling. Macpherson asks if there are any bids and each buyer consults a hidden screen and either comes up with a number or indicates "no offer."

Yes, some contestants manage to sell their designs for upward of $100,000, but it's never clear what the money will cover or what will be asked in return. Given the advertising that the three stores are getting from being on the show, it's safe to assume they're getting a fair shake.

In the end, the no-nonsense buyers decide which designer won't be coming back next week, while the mentors get to save one of the bottom three from elimination.

The winner will -- in a fit of incongruous Silverman logic -- have their work on sale in all three stores. How this works out for shoppers is anyone's guess, since someone in Saks might be a bit startled by the H&M way. But see, that doesn't really matter. The people who put this infomercial/glossy commercial together are thinking about only one thing: how to "incentivize" people to buy. It looks like they've figured out how to do it, all right. Whether that makes for good television or even results in foot traffic (and thus a successful "fashion icon" as Macpherson promises), will be up to the viewer.