Tuesday, February 6, 2007

First Reaction: It's the Pits! (Sand Pits and Snake Pits)

Yes, we’re a little late with this, possums, but hear us out.

We first watched the premiere episode of Top Design straightaway after the final episode of Top Chef, a show to which we devoted three and a half months of analysis on Amuse-Biatch. The entire experience, particularly the last several weeks, left us jaundiced, frazzled, bilious and vitriolic all at once, and we were afraid that those feelings might have spilled over into our reaction to Top Design.

We had actually been looking forward to Top Design as a return to the halcyon days of Project Runway. No mob mentality, no potentially criminal assaults, no burbling homophobic subtext. Just old-fashioned, candy-colored, Froot-Loopy creativity and bitchery.

In fact, perusing the cast profiles and previews, we said, with no small amount of glee, “It looks like it’s full of queers and bitches.”

“And that’s just the men,” agreed Miss XaXa, delighted.

And yet, we were bored the first time we watched Top Design. Normally, we like to post a first reaction in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, but we said to ourselves, “No, that might not be fair. It’s probably just the Top Chef vitriol talking. Give it a chance, give it a few days, watch it a few more times.”

But you know what? We did watch it a few more times, and we’re still bored. Tant pis.

So here goes.

Let’s start with the title, shall we? Our tongue knows things we don’t, and it kept, and keeps, wanting to say Top Designer, not Top Design. Naturally, Bravo couldn’t call it that, as it would cause confusion with Project Runway, which should have been called Top Designer all along. Still, that missing prepuce of the “er” suffix will no doubt continue to haunt us like a linguistic phantom limb.

And the theme song? Well, it sounds like a duet between a panting mongoose in heat—

“—and circa-1992 Crystal Waters vocalizing into a subwoofer,” Miss XaXa helpfully interjected. A gypsy woman like Miss XaXa always tells the truth.

The introductory montage of the contestants arriving passed relatively painlessly. We were introduced to the cheeriest of the lot, Goil, an endearing, charming, and ebullient Ivy League Gaysian, our favorite kind. He immediately began rearranging the furniture in the apartment, and we were grateful that Bravo, unlike with Top Chef, didn’t use this as a springboard for a commercial-break factoid bubble about feng shui.

Blonde, startled-looking Felicia told us that her design philosophy was all-encompassing, and that she had a desire to place even the food in a client’s refrigerator. But since she doesn’t appear to eat, and may, indeed, be surviving on the stores of collagen in her lower lip, we decided we wouldn’t want her designing our kitchen or controlling our food supply. And Felicia, possum, come closer and let us whisper two words that ought to chill you to the marrow: “Jocelyn Wildenstein.”

Amphibian contestant John came in as if entering Toad Hall, and threw out little cluster-bombs about the “queeny” contestants, and “girls,” and “campy designers.” We weren’t surprised because his comments were “hateful”; we were surprised because they were self-hating. We suspect that somewhere in John’s past is a personal ad reading, “No fats or femmes,” but, really, the Lady Chablis doth protest too much. Prancing around, hands on hips, rolling your eyes, and pitching your voice high as you accuse others of being queeny is not exactly tonic to your str8acting bona fides.

As for his relationship with bespectacled enfant très, très, très terrible Michael, well, let’s say that, having spent the last several weeks writing about the relationship between Ilan Hall and Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef, we simply haven’t got the strength to tackle this just yet, other than to theorize that they’re exactly the same person, and that this is proven by just how skillfully Michael cut John to the quick by declaring in horror that some idea of John’s reminded him of the Chicago suburbs, since on his Bravo bio John says he’s “allergic to the suburbs.” As Miss XaXa observed, “The power ‘tool’ meets the power bottom.” “But which is which?” we queried, stumping Miss XaXa for once.

We found Matt to be pretty, although, like every other viewer in America, we did a double take when he mentioned his wife and daughter. But then we remembered that Cedric Gibbons was married (and to Janet Gaynor, no less). And Calvin Klein was married. And Elton John was married. And Jim McGreevey had a wife and daughter, too. Il n’y a rien d’autre à dire. We also quite liked Carisa Perez-Fuentes. She seems to be one of our peoples (hyphenated last name y todo), and is pretty, spunky, and well-spoken, a perfect prototype of Fruit Fly as produced in a factory run by Wendy Wasserstein and Edmund White.

The contestants were shuttled to the Pacific Design Center (or PDC, or the “Blue Whale”) in West Hollywood, there to meet host Todd Oldham and learn about their first design challenge.

And now a word about our host. We remember Todd Oldham from his heyday at MTV, when we were young and dewy, and he was preternaturally youthful and held découpage tea parties for Shalom Harlow and Rebecca Romijn on House of Style. And we like the man. We did, after all, try to have President Bush appoint him Special Ambassador to Iran.

We were fully prepared to make cracks about his youthful appearance and The Picture of Dorian G(r)ay, but Bravo treated us to some close-ups and we had to cry foul and ask, Is Todd Oldham turning into Hurd Hatfield? Not nice, Bravo, not nice. In the days of MGM, the camera lens would have been slathered in Vaseline before being trained on an aging star; couldn’t Bravo spring for a little KY to coat the lens?

Still, this was proof positive that winsome boyishness is a lot harder to pull off once you get long in the snaggletooth (and a lesson that 36-year-old, clown-jacket-wearing, skateboard-riding, sexually indeterminate Ryan might want to take to heart). As for the oft-mentioned oddness of Todd’s voice and speaking style, Miss XaXa reminded us authoritatively that Botox has been known to paralyze speech centers.

The challenge was to split into teams of two and create a “sanctuary” for a celebrity client on the basis of five objets. Knowing in advance that the mystery client was none other than transsexual Alexis Arquette, we were particularly irked by Todd’s incessant, quasi-smirking use of pronouns: “he…or she,” “him…or her.” Knock it off, Todd, just like she had it knocked off.

We cringed when we heard Lisa say that what she does, in design terms, is “ethnic modern.” We're a little bit ethnic ourselves, what Miss XaXa calls “a little bit out-of-the-country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll,” and in our experience, “ethnic modern” too often translates to a Pottery Barn couch paired with (pick one) chinoiserie, Kente cloth, or plaster Aztec sun calendars.

As for the approach Lisa and Heather adopted for their room, of course you think Asian when you think of sanctuary. Never mind the reality of Tokyo, Shanghai, or Kuala Lumpur. Just take a shoji screen and a Buddha head, add hot water and cover for two minutes, and voilà, instant enlightenment and sanctuary. Paging Edward Said! Orientalism alert! That’s ethnic modern for you.

After montage and drama, it was time to meet the judges. Todd finally lost the pronoun game and introduced Alexis Arquette, but not before telling us that she “comes from Hollywood royalty.”

Now, we are quite fond of Alexis (we even liked her when she was a boy, in the days of I Think I Do), but we’re at a loss to explain this royal provenance. Queen or princess? Yes. Hollywood royalty? Not so fast.

She is a member of the Arquette family—David (whose singular accomplishment has been to impregnate, and not be divorced by, Courtney Cox), Rosanna (who went from Desperately Seeking Susan to desperately having her carpet Hoovered by Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin on The L Word), and Patricia (whose marriage to Nicolas Cage appears to have lobotomized her and who now stars in Medium, a show Miss XaXa dismisses thus, “Medium? Please. It should be called XL, or Double D.”). Not exactly the Hustons (Oscar-winner Walter, Oscar-winner John, Oscar-winner Anjelica and Danny) or even the Barrymores (Oscar-winner Lionel, Oscar-winner Ethel, Oscar-nominee John, and former child star Drew).

The regular judges—Jonathan Adler, Margaret Russell, and Kelly Wearstler—gave some pleasure, but also some disappointment. Most pleasurable of all was Margaret, our newest older-woman crush. It was clear that Kelly, sporting medieval-looking leggings and a shiny, pleated pink gingham dress that Christian Lacroix might have designed for a revival of Oklahoma!, is “just a girl who cain’t say no” to bad fashion, and we love her for it. Not since Padma Lakshmi….

As for Jonathan, we’ve already given him grief about his “See you later, decorators” sign-off, and worried about his marriage to Simon Doonan, and now it’s time to fret about his footwear. Jonathan, possum (and this goes for you, too, Todd), those sneakers were just a no-no. Had it been a weekend in country, we wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. But this is the White Room you’re in, a K-hole of a scenic concoction Frankensteined from druggy memories of Chicago, Broadway Melody of 1940, The Snake Pit, and a Chesterfield sofa (we half expected a tapping Eleanor Powell or a singing Renee Zellweger on that black floor). You can’t get away with that, boys. If you’re old enough to get yearly check-ups for prostate cancer, you shouldn’t wear twenty-something-surfer-boy sneakers to the White Room, or anywhere in public for that matter.

In the end, Goil and Elizabeth won for a room that featured a sand pit, and Lisa and Heather (sigh) were sent home for the green Chinese restaurant they designed, and the first episode came mercifully to an end.