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'Tim Gunn's Guide to Style': A Button-Down Reality Show

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Some people are simply too tasteful to star in reality television. This is the problem with the erudite Tim Gunn, the thoughtful fashion consigliere from "Project Runway," who has been cast as a makeover guru in "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style," debuting at 10 tonight on Bravo.

Reality TV requires that its stars be big personalities who talk loudly, nonstop and without regard to whether they're making any sense. Voices of reason are best as supporting characters. And Gunn comes across as an adamantly reasonable man.

Consider the successful "Project Runway." The stars of the design competition are the contestants who happily adopt eccentric personalities to increase their screen time and improve their chances for survival. The judges are ancillary characters, there to reassure the viewers that, yes, their gut instinct is correct, some of those clothes really are atrocious. Gunn plays a supporting role, hovering above the chaos, never lashing out at contestants for their failings. He is relentlessly encouraging and conciliatory. He is professorial and wise. Gunn is authentic, which is precisely what reality television is not.

Gunn's new show is based on his book, "Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style." It is a narrow volume filled with musings about personal style and a few rules for developing it. There are no glossy before-and-after photos. Gunn does not believe a person must be beaten into submission in order to be built back up. He quotes Kierkegaard when he's explaining how to clean out a closet. Shouldn't that have been warning enough that this was better suited to a PBS special, rather than reality show fodder?

The book makes readers think about their clothes. But thinking about clothes doesn't make exciting television. The show moves along slowly, with Gunn being droll but not particularly scintillating. The different women Gunn counsels each week have volunteered to be made over. They recognize they have sartorial issues. This spares Gunn from having to mastermind a demeaning intervention, but it sucks the emotional wham-bam out of the show.

Gunn takes a professorial tone with his makeover students. He's not there to show them how to dress better; he's there to guide them so they can make that discovery for themselves. When one of Gunn's subjects complains about some of his suggestions, he calls her into his office and asks her to rethink her commitment to the process. He can't want her to succeed more than she wants to, he says. It's like watching a principal guilt a sullen adolescent into working harder.

Gunn sits them down in front of computer-generated images of themselves. He dissects their shape. He sketches helpful clothing suggestions on printouts. Ultimately, that's empowering for the women, and they undoubtedly walk away with more valuable information than if they had simply been bullied into a dress with an empire waist because it's deemed more flattering to their pear shape. But it's not nearly as entertaining for the audience. The show is enlightening, but dull.

Model Veronica Webb is Gunn's sidekick. Her role appears to be adding a touch of glamour to Gunn's suit-and-tie reserve. She is also more likely to unleash an acerbic comment when the situation requires it. She doesn't exactly call one woman a slut but does note that her wardrobe would probably be more suitable for a stripper. But Webb doesn't succeed in livening up the show because no matter what she's saying, it's uttered in the most lackadaisical tones. "Let's go shopping!" resonates like "Let's watch paint dry!" in Webb's blase monotone. Webb sounds bored with these poor unstylish women. She sounds bored with the show. She sounds bored with life.

Webb turns fashion tips and shopping advice into a lullaby more effective than Ambien. The viewer doesn't stand a chance.

Tim Gunn's Guide to Style airs tonight at 10 on Bravo.

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