Today we begin the semifinals of Vulture’s ultimate Reality Rumble, a bracket to determine the greatest season of the greatest reality-TV shows, from The Real World on. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until Vulture's Margaret Lyons judges the finals on March 25. Today, after each clawing their way through two rounds, The Real World: San Francisco takes on the second season of Project Runway: Puck vs. Santino! To judge this match, we asked the hosts of Earwolf's "reality SHOW show" podcast, Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport, to debate it on their podcast.
You can listen to their debate (complete with sound clips), or read an abridged transcript below.
Sean: Vulture wants us to officiate a real slobber-knocker here.
Hayes: Real World season three, of course, is very notable for featuring a character who was HIV positive, Pedro Zamora, and the first same-sex commitment ceremony on television —
Sean: — and that season of Project Runway was, famously, the first time clothes had been on television. Or I guess the second time, because it was season two. So, both very important shows, because we all wear clothes every day—
Hayes: —and we all saw Dallas Buyers Club.
Sean: Let’s start with Project Runway. This was the Santino season.
Hayes: In terms of trailblazing, this season sort of pioneered the dragging along of an interesting character all the way to the end, even if he did not actually deserve to be on the show.
Sean: Yes, it’s now such well-worn territory that when you see a real maniac show up on any kind of competition show who’s got a great personality and doesn’t appear to be the most skilled, you go, “Well they’re making it to episode six, minimum, because the producers will not allow them to be eliminated.” They make the show interesting to watch.
Hayes: And with Santino as the only truly interesting character on this season, they brazenly kept passing him as he was seemingly testing how badly he could do.
Sean: He was gluing sequins onto a paper bag and making someone march down the runway in it, and the judges were going, like, This is interesting because you don’t see paper bags covered in glue in fashion, and so you’re changing the way I think about clothing.
Hayes: He put Cara in that disgusting jumpsuit where the arm was falling off. Like, the arm of the jumpsuit was literally falling off her body as she was going down the runway, and they would say, That’s awful, you did a really bad job, Santino, but Nick or whatever, were you too safe by just doing —
Sean: — a dress that fit and had arms on it? And to be fair, Nick frequently would have arms on his clothes and they would not be falling off, and Santino never played it that safe.
Hayes: [One of the major things] about this season of Project Runway that people don’t remember is who won.
Sean: Her name’s Chloe Dao: You can Google it, nothing’s going to come up that excites you.
Hayes: Chloe was an okay clothes-maker.
Sean: She was pretty solid, and her gifts had brought her all the way to the Big Apple.
Hayes: Yes. She came from Houston, Texas, and the knock on her was that she didn’t want it enough. You’ve got guys like Andrae ...
Sean: He wants it so bad, he can’t stop crying.
Hayes: … Daniel Vosovic, and Daniel Franco, who wanted it so badly that he was willing to humiliate himself for a second season! Daniel Franco came back on the show after being eliminated in the first episode of season one. They pretended to have, like, a really difficult conversation about whether this interesting character with a fun backstory could come back on the show and then they let him on. So of course, he wanted it very badly. Chloe, on the other hand, made it clear at some point that maybe she wasn’t that interested in all the fame that Project Runway would bring her if she won. So while Chloe put her life on hold for several months to do the show and ultimately win, she also didn’t know if she wanted to win, which is a pretty common experience, I think, for people who do something like that.
Sean: But then she was able to actually get what she wanted out of Project Runway, which was nothing. She’s definitely not famous, and I don’t know if her life’s hard or not, but if it’s hard, it’s not because of any fame associated with her. Anyway, people will say that Project Runway, compared to Real World, doesn’t have the weight, the social component. But it’s showing the lives of people who do a valuable service. They make clothes. Clothes keep people warm.
Hayes: They cover your genitals so that you don’t see them.
Sean: And there’s something to be said for just showing people who aren’t on a show because they’re diverse or they have a medical condition, they’re just normal people talking about normal stuff. And so it was nice to see people who were skilled at something, who were competing so it had that fun game-show feel: who’s going to be eliminated, who’s going to win. That isn’t really present in The Real World.
Hayes: Also, this show had the virtue of having Debra Messing be the judge in the finale. Debra Messing, as far as I know, did not appear in a single episode of Real World: San Francisco.
Sean: No, and it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Hayes: And she had this sort of memorable moment when they showed all their collections, and then Debra Messing speaks at the beginning of the actual judging process.
[Skip to 13:17 on the podcast file to hear Debra Messing say, “The thing that was really exciting today was seeing each one of you present a collection.”]
Hayes: And that was the end.
Sean: Yes, that was the entirety of her thoughts on it, and I do remember thinking, Well, Debra’s not messing this one up. She nailed it!
Hayes: She knew exactly what had just happened to her.
Sean: She was completely aware. I mean, it was as if she had watched them walk down the runway in clothes and knew people made the clothes. And people think that actors can only read stuff off a script and only know what to say when it’s been written out for them, but she’s proving, extemporaneously, she’s aware of what she sees, or where she is, most of the time!
Hayes: Let’s get into The Real World. A lot of big personalities in this season.
Sean: There were two big personalities in this season.
Hayes: Double how many there were in Project Runway! There’s Puck and Pedro Zamora. They famously clashed. Pedro Zamora was, of course, an HIV-positive man. He was an AIDS advocate.
Sean: He would speak about the disease and try to raise awareness, and that’s a big part of why he went on the show. Puck went on the show because he had a bike.
Hayes: Yes. He was like an old Bart Simpson, both in appearance and behavior.
Sean: Yeah, he was like a 10-year-old boy with a slingshot, who was always up to no good, making trouble, and essentially doing the Bartman all over everyone’s feelings.
Hayes: He was just generally sort of a jerk. So his housemates got together and voted to kick him out of the house, because he was just not very nice. He did things that would be very commonplace on pretty much any show today, because they pursue jerks like Puck because he was such a popular character.
Sean: He was entertaining.
Hayes: He’s probably nicer than Santino, for example, who openly antagonized all of his castmates on that show. Puck had sort of a gentle side and would talk about how much he loved everybody all the time
Sean: He would try to repair relationships briefly before tearing them down again because he was broken.
Hayes: Yes, he was very, very stupid. And he was punished for his stupidity.
Sean: One thing that you forget, or that I forget because I was younger when I watched this show, is that you think of Puck as being this incendiary, rebellious character. What you forget is that he’s kind of dumb. And that is the direction in which reality television in general moved, I think, so that people would not be so aware of how they were coming across or how to control their image. They tend to load the house with more volatile, dumb people.
Hayes: Now on Real World, you can actually see how it’s changed, because about one person every season or every two seasons gets kicked out of the house and it’s always for punching someone. Like, getting really violent with somebody. And even those standards have been relaxed.
Sean: Sometimes they push someone off a balcony and then they’re allowed to stay.
Hayes: And they’re just always fighting, physically fistfighting, all the time. Now, in season 29, the show is basically unrecognizable.
Sean: They’ve evolved the show to give you more of what people were tuning in for. And I think that a lot of people talk about prior seasons of The Real World, like season three, as the good old days of reality TV, when there was more of a mission statement and there were more intelligent people on. But what you forget is that this was very boring and it was not good TV. And you really did not want to hear Pam and Judd talk to each other. They’re normal people and it really was just so painful to sit through.
Hayes: A show like that today would be so wildly unpopular and inexplicable. You would not understand why these goobers were on television.
Sean: You, person who defends old Real World, would not watch these seasons if they were on now!
Hayes: And I think a good barometer for which of these seasons is superior is the fact that yesterday I was trying to catch up on the shows in anticipation of this conversation, and I started Project Runway. I thought I’d catch up on the beginning, and I watched the entire season in a day. And it was great. I had seen it before, and I knew what was going to happen, but I still wanted to see it again.
Sean: And another barometer is, if you watch whatever Project Runway season they’re on right now, it’s the same show. Because it worked when they were doing it in season two and it still works. Whereas Real World …
Hayes: They’ve had to have radical upheavals, just to force people to watch the show.
Sean: So as a cultural touchstone, Real World season three is superior. As a season of reality television, which is meant to entertain, we’ve got to give the nod to Project Runway season two.
Hayes: That’s our selection for the superior show, based purely on entertainment value. I watched 14 hours of Project Runway yesterday, and I feel great. Best I’ve ever felt.
Winner: Project Runway, season two
Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport are television writers and also host the Hollywood Handbook podcast on the Earwolf network.