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reality rumble

What’s the Best Reality Show Ever? Round 2: The Osbournes vs. Project Runway

Today we continue the second round 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, in the second quarterfinals matchup, the first season of The Osbournes, in which we meet the bickering family of a famous metal superstar, goes up against the second season of Project Runway, which introduced us to the salacious antics of Santino Rice.

In one corner: a show about a poorly behaved but ultimately loving celebrity family. In the other: a fashion competition putting skill on a pedestal above personality. Both The Osbournes and Project Runway were trendsetters in their own rights, and they have come to represent opposing sides of the same reality coin: a voyeuristic glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous versus an awe- and jealousy-inspiring look at regular people who are more talented than you.

But Osbournes and Runway do have a few things in common, beginning with their strong father figures. Runway’s Tim Gunn is the mentor you wish you had to guide you through all of life’s challenges — tough when he needs to be, but ultimately wise and encouraging. Ozzy is the dad you’d always hoped for — impossibly cool, overwhelmingly loving, and fiercely protective of his clan. Gunn is well-spoken, precise, and professional; Ozzy is barely comprehensible, puttering, and confused with his place in the landscape of his own reality.

When Gunn quips “Make it work,” you believe that each contestant will turn that awkward pile of fabric into a masterpiece — and when they do, you celebrate, knowing full well that Gunn is somewhere lifting a glass of Champagne with genuine pride in his eyes. Ozzy loves his clan, too, but the woes of being an actual father are more pressing and intimately felt than those of a substitute father figure. As Ozzy and Sharon deal with Jack’s budding substance abuse problems, there’s not much silver lining evident in the show. Jack’s still out at the Roxy every night, and who can take the Prince of Darkness seriously when he tells you not to smoke pot?

Ozzy’s state is indicative of The Osbournes as a whole. One glaring problem with the show was always its structural issues. Its narrative unspooled in a linear fashion — but things like Kelly Osbourne’s randomly changing hairstyles betray the falsehood. It also felt more like a collection of snack-size moments than a full meal. Before there were websites dedicated to cataloging viral moments, The Osbournes was giving us a buffet of meme bites: Ozzy’s reaction to the bubble machine on his tour, as he shouts, “I’m the fucking Price of Darkness! I can’t have bubbles!” or the moment when Sharon throws half of a ham into a noisy neighbor’s yard. Like the classic family sitcoms it so cleverly subverted, The Osbournes bottled its characters’ story arcs in single episodes. When MTV launched into the next episode, you could be sure that Ozzy had already forgotten how to use the remote control. This approach made the very real family seem larger than life — but didn’t leave viewers feeling too invested.

Project Runway’s second season may have had its own cache of witty one-liners (from Daniel V. to Nick Verreos to Andrae, everyone was a sound bite) and WTF moments (in the form of fashion faux pas), but structurally the show succeeds where The Osbournes failed. With the competition always at the forefront, Runway engages viewers and locks them in for the long run, while Ozzy and his family never competed for more than half of your attention. Aside from endlessly picking up dog poop, the Osbournes didn’t do much on their show. They rarely even left their mansion home or their homes-away-from-home (e.g., Ozzy’s touring venues). By contrast, Project Runway does things and goes places, often at breakneck speed. Designers are challenged to create outfits out of flowers, or make a couture version of a spandex ice skating costume. Who knew an hour of sewing could be so fascinating? Half the fun of Project Runway is watching the frantic dash toward the presentation, only to be dazzled by completed projects that looked like scraps of fabric only minutes earlier. In the first three episodes of season two alone, the contestants created high-fashion looks on a $20 budget, ripped the clothes off their backs to make new outfits for their models, and had to Barbie-fy their fashion sense for the iconic doll —  all with barely any time to breathe between challenges. The Osbournes’ lack of propulsive narrative action is not entirely a condemnation, but there are only so many times you can watch Jack’s friends play pool in the basement before you realize how boring that lifestyle could be.

Interestingly, both shows provide us with a nontraditional idea of family. Project Runway’s contestants are cut off from their own families, but they bond together and form their own supportive, family-ike circle during their time on the show. Sure, season two had its share of beefs between contestants (a stand-out: Zulema stealing Nick’s model in episode eight, with her “motherfucking walk-off”), but most of the bickering is minimal, and in general, the designers have each other’s backs. Nick V., for example, spent much of his time on the show walking around, putting his fashion educator skills to use, and giving advice to other contestants. And when the gang went ice skating for the episode-seven challenge, it was like watching an incredibly diverse version of The Partridge Family. As on Top Chef, the work room is almost sacred and, for the most part, everyone respects each other’s talents, or are at least willing to offer explict complaints about any issues they were having with someone else. Of course, the Project Runway families are short-lived arrangements, and outside of the bounds of TV, those people may never seen each other again.

Sharon, Ozzy, Kelly, and Jack, on the other hand, are blood, and the fights we saw on the show affect them to this day. Not only did the eldest Osbourne daughter refuse to appear on the series at all, thereby causing a rift with the rest of her family, but Ozzy’s drug problems eventually trickled down to Jack and Kelly, a fact that casts his amusing bumbling in a darker light. Their various family dramas continued long after the cameras stopped rolling, but on the show at least, they always addressed them with honesty and humor.

Ozzy used MTV to rebrand himself for a new age: No more was he a bat-eating weirdo; he was a warm and fuzzy dad who just wanted the best for his family. His family members, by extension, became integral parts of the pop-culture landscape — albeit decidedly less warm and fuzzy ones. For them, it was more about presence, and the eventual transition to celebrity in their own rights.

Project Runway is less about rebranding than it is about continual reinvention. Each day, the contestants take on a challenge that forces them to rethink their own approach to their chosen craft, and then their work is judged immediately on its effectiveness. In fact, during season two, they’re directly charged with reinvention of their own style in the form of a makeover episode. Chloe, the eventual winner who could make wearable womenswear with her eyes closed, had to become an expert at men’s tailoring in a single day. By the time the final runway show rolled around, the designers were surprising viewers and themselves with creations they wouldn’t have thought themselves capable of just weeks before.

Ozzy is a terrific reality-show character: an image-conscious celebrity and family man who had infamously once decapitated a bat with his teeth. But of the two shows, it was Runway that unleashed the perfectly baked reality TV personality in the form of season two’s Santino Rice. Rice was Puckish (as in Real World: San Francisco’s infamous pot-stirrer), over-the-top, annoying, and hated, but he wasn’t so annoying that the public couldn’t get behind him from time to time. His love-hate relationship with Nick V. was particularly endearing; Santino saw him as his only real competition during the show, while Nick grudgingly stayed close even when Santino drove him crazy. As annoying as he could come across, no one broke down and starting slinging F-bombs at Santino during the season, the modus operandi of the Osbourne clan. Santino’s outrageousness gave viewers someone to love to hate on Project Runway, while The Osbournes only had momentary external nemeses — such as the loud neighbor who received that flying ham. The internal villain made Project Runway season two compelling in a way that The Osbournes was not; you watched to see whom Santino would mimic and infuriate next, to see who would end up being paired with him, and to see how the others would dissect him behind his back. It made the character-building so intense that as the show wore on and contestants were knocked off, you cried along as each new person had to say good-bye.

In the end, both shows are exercises in the audience longing for something they don’t have. In the case of The Osbournes, it’s the kind of wealth and power that allows you to have more dogs than you could ever hope to keep track of, a personal-security team, a private plane, and more Gucci bags than that private plane can even carry. It introduced the idea of the (MTV-produced) peep-hole into celebrity lifestyle beyond what Cribs allowed. Project Runway showed us another sort of longing. The contestants were seemingly everyday people with extraordinary talents. Instead of watching and wishing for a higher income bracket and having been born to an infamous father, you watched and wished you had the artistic skills to turn live flowers into ball gowns in 24 hours. The legacy Project Runway has left us is that there are many different ways to be an artist — clothing design, sure, but also the topics covered by its reality brethren and descendants: food, hair, interior design, even sci-fi makeup. The cable landscape will continue to plug away at the possibilities for years to come.

Winner: Project Runway, season two.