The hidden immunity idol. The U-Turn. The Golden Power Of Veto. Last Chance Kitchen. These phrases may not mean much to you, but to viewers of long-running reality franchises (specifically Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother and Top Chef), they reflect a basic tenet of competition shows: Now and then, you have to throw your competitors a ... curve.
The history of these twists is mixed at best. Very often, they overcomplicate what was originally, believe it or not, devilishly simple. Survivor, for example, wound up with so many idols and advantages and immunities in play at one point this season that there was no vote: Only one person was even eligible to go home. It's like a hockey game in which an entire team is suspended for fighting, so one guy with seven teeth goes out onto the ice and forfeits. The Amazing Race was originally a show with little focus on personal animus, because there wasn't much to do with it, but once it became possible to stab people in the back (or the front), the motives to do so became a much bigger part of the storytelling. And ... well, there's never any real point to analyzing Big Brother, unless you like sobbing or abject despair.
Project Runway, which opened its 16th season on Wednesday night, has fiddled with its structure from time to time: the "Tim Gunn Save," the introduction of quickie mid-runway-show challenges, and various tweaks to the finale have been thrown against the wall to see what sticks. But this season, the producers decided to make a change to the competition itself — to the very design and execution process that forms the backbone of the show. (Or, as it were, the zipper.) Specifically, the collection of models for whom the designers are designing are a variety of sizes. As Tim Gunn says, they range from size 2 to size 22.
Runway has a long tradition of periodic challenges, roughly once a season, that require the designers to design for what the show typically calls "real women" who are not models. (Side note: All women are equally real, provided they are made of living organic material and not, for instance, plastic or Popsicle sticks.) They might be moms or friends or women who want makeovers, but very often, at least some if not all are bigger, moderately or substantially, than the usual runway models. This has led to some ugly moments for designers who think plus-size women are too inconvenient, ungainly or hip-equipped to deserve clothes. (Some of them honestly seem on the verge, at times, of shouting, "WHO CARES WHAT UGGOS ARE WEARING?") But even in the best-case scenarios, the "real women" episodes have often become stories of how decent and admirable designers are for boosting the self-esteem of women who aren't models. Too often, these "real women" are presented as either inspirational or pitiable.