Friends, that cultural moment we’ve waited for has finally come to ask of us a cruel, most ignoble task: We must transmute our collective weariness into scrutinizing a group of ambitiously preening women who subject themselves to physical and emotional distress and become completely insensible to the world around them. Yes, America’s Next Top Model and its mistress mind are back for a 24th cycle, and let’s just act like that number is not insanely high. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen.
But first, give us Tyra in a knee-high boot strutting down an empty airplane hangar, hunnie!!! Slo-mo black-and-white, okay!!! Ha-ha, absolutely!
Actually, let’s talk about Tyra Banks for a second. There’s a Joan Didion quote about James Jones that we’d like to reassign to Tyra because her return demands it: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” This show is Tyra Banks, because she’s claimed and remembered and loved it so much (although the ways in which she’s remade it are questionable). The specter of her absence hanging over the last cycle was a striking reminder of that.
Thankfully, the show wastes no time in feting its prodigal host — or mourning Rita Ora’s existential passing, for that matter — because one fever dream of a supertrailer later, we’re in the semi-finalist round! We get a couple cute intros from Drew Elliott, Ashley Graham, and image architect Law Roach (we refrain from putting his job title in quotes out of genuine respect), all of whom extol diversity and personal branding and beauty in a broad sense. “Celebrities can be any age,” Law says. “And you buy into the image even before you hear them speak.” Not having to talk as you get older? We’re halfway there, Mr. Roach!
After Tyra spreads her arms across the judging table and demands that her “new family” touch her, things get down to brass tacks. Tyra makes vigorous eye contact with the judges as she declares that the girls can be eliminated at any point if they are not unanimously deemed “next-level fierce,” a new criterion in the ever-shifting rubric of Top Model that is so explicit as to mean absolutely nothing. And yet next-level fierceness is what each of the 26 girls must exemplify in a single photo that best represents their raw talent. Let’s talk about some of them.
Our first model Ivana seems peppy and cultivated enough after she tells the judges about getting her master’s in China and squealing down the Great Wall. (But truly, mad respect because the lines and bus rides getting up there are a version of Christian hell.) Her Mandarin is fine, but she’d make Bowen’s aunts freakin’ flip, so good for her. The judges love her photo in which she tastefully presses her ass against a garden wall, and she moves on.
Next up is Khrystyana (pronounced “Cristiana,” which is the only acceptable spelling of the name), who is 32 years old and therefore groundbreaking. She is the first beneficiary of the nixed age limit as soon as the judging panel celebrates her beautiful hips and moves her on. Khrystyana is also a joyful Siberian, which you have to hope means she’ll become a gorgeous and friendly diplomat someday.
We then meet a fringe-adorned Shanice, who shares a nice laugh with Tyra about a rib-related misunderstanding (who hasn’t?) and it’s cute! She offers up an affecting story about her late brother and then presents her photo, which we will applaud for its “MySpace lighting” so evocative of the early aughts that Greta Gerwig may have directed it.
Then we have Liberty, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed nymph conjured by an undead Roger Ailes himself. She talks about “genuinely” not knowing “what” a Muslim “was” before moving to L.A. and shakes her head when she says, “I need to know more,” in a tone marked with lobotomized alacrity. She shows the judges her senior portrait from two years ago, and Law correctly clocks her look as being too country singer. Tyra, however, proceeds to diffuse the suspense and advances Liberty to the next round. Under a celebratory spell, Liberty outs herself to the other girls as — oh, hmm, sure — a Trump supporter. So yeah, we’ve got a Trump supporter named Liberty on our hands. Liberty (which is her name) expresses tremendous faith that President Trump will bring career opportunity to the country, gesticulating from her shoulder with the energy of a congressional page and the rhetoric of a coal miner. Also, we’re sure that Liberty bemoaning being “just another beautiful face” absolutely means that she’s coasted on that identity her entire life. What struggle, what loss. God bless, Liberty (which is, again, her name).
There’s Erin, the 42-year-old full-fledged grandmother who, as Tyra says, is truly frozen in time, and a few beats later triumphantly takes off her hair and tosses it over to Ms. Banks, who simply can’t resist a hat-on-a-hat/wig-on-a-wig gag. Although Tyra’s penchant for broad physical “comedy” (read: pranks) is well-documented, we must now present this insane but amazing moment from her old talk show. Oh, and Erin moves on!
There’s a mess of a girl named Liz who says some weird stuff and asks the judges to “get drinks after this” in a way that portends absolutely no real commitment. Then Christina, a wonderfully petulant name-dropper, marches in to trade some barbs with Law, who dutifully provides the cameras with side-eyes that say a thousand “oooouuuuuus.” Luckily for Christina, she provides the judges with a stunning photo, and luckily for us, she provides amazing TV. To have Tyra berate a model with a tongue-lashing this early on is a true gift, and we must be honor it rightfully.
We meet Jeana, whose features are enviable with or without hair, followed by Maggie, a self-described “white homegirl,” who recounts being exorcised of her Maine-bred caucacity while going to college in California. “We’re talking Oakland,” she says in a way that captures decades of white flight, to which the judges blink awarely.
Lastly, Coura’s otherworldly beauty mesmerizes the judges, and in the blink of an eye we’re down to a clapping throng of 20 girls and the first photo-shoot challenge. With an empty foreboding, Tyra warns of a house that won’t fit them all, to which the girls solemnly nod. Now it’s time to throw some garments on these women and let them pose.
The next day the models are carted off to Greystone Mansion, famous for its Tudor Revival architecture, Old Hollywood elegance, and horrendously grisly murders, which we won’t detail for you here. Drew greets everyone and introduces the brilliant Nicola Formichetti, who approaches the girls to perform a dazzlingly forced display of cordiality. “I’m so excited to be here, we’re going to have so much fun today.” He shoots a thumbs-up so pained and affected it belongs in a Christopher Guest mockumentary about dour stylists with insane widow’s peaks.
The models get into their looks and we finally come across an infectiously likable contestant in Rio, whose reality-requisite cancer story is undercut with assuredness and confidence and cool. She knows to add spice to the saccharine and we willingly eat the whole thing up. Cut to her putting a giant fortune cookie on her head, wearing a Gaga-esque neo-dress, and slaying (duh), and you’ve got yourself a crowd favorite.
As the other girls are photographed, we see that Drew is exceptionally suited to the task of barking orders at headdressed women while wearing an Arrow short-sleeve singly buttoned at the middle. He sets the models up for success as best he can. Liberty, the Trump supporter whose name is Liberty, wears a white floral look that is perfectly on-the-nose. Erin struggles with showing her range as she balances an overturned gravy boat covered in dead crows on her head. Brendi K. (why “K” though?) and Ivana meanwhile are exuberant. The day goes smoothly, and Drew reviews his selects with Tyra, who feels ready to send some of the girls home already.
Under the waning twilight, Tyra gathers the girls in the courtyard and gleefully announces that a spontaneous fashion show awaits them on the level below. That the announcement comes before she eliminates Laminat and Ilka on the spot seems cruel, but so it goes. They are ushered away into some shameful tent while Drew teases the models with the splendors of the house, vaguely telling them, “You’re gonna want to move into this house,” with the same clenched charm as Annette Bening in American Beauty.
The fashion show happens without much consequence, although some of the obvious drone shots are cool, we guess? After the girls put themselves on display for some dead-eyed ciphers, we cut to them pulling up to the polygonal slab of a house that they have been instructed to love. Every interior is a waiting-room shrine to Tyra, and of course, there’s a bed shortage! It’s 14 spots for 18 girls.
After we check in with Christina, who questions how secure she is in the competition, Liz starts crying and wailing to a mid-exfoliant Khrystyana for seemingly no reason. The whole thing is born of nothing whatsoever, as to almost defy physical laws of conservation, and it is a truly disorienting moment to watch. Eventually, we learn that Liz’s distress has to do with Khrystyana “being stiff competition.” Khrystyana says, “I’m not really sure, what is she upset about?” Neither are we, K, neither are we! The other girls start to gather around the scene while Liz continues her slow sputter of emotionally null statements like, “I’m really struggling,” “I just want you to know that I just feel, like, really crappy,” and “Because this is how I feel.”
We somehow move on from this moment in ruptured space-time with no resolution, and suddenly it’s the next day. Tyra stops by the house to make the rounds and gathers the girls around again, this time in front of a sloppily hung curtain. Without much buildup, she reveals the 14 remaining girls’ photos to shrieks and awe. Among the four casualties is Erin, who tearfully monologues what she will say to her children, disappointed but not defeated. It’s a true gut-punch of a good-bye that you’d never expect a season to deliver in its first hour, and the image of Erin packing her bags is, at the risk of sounding dramatic, destructive in its sadness.
Then, in a perfectly choreographed and/or produced moment, Tyra stops Erin just before leaving and, after a tender exchange, tells Erin that there is actually room for 15 girls in the house. Yes, Erin is staying. It’s a lovely, heartwarming twist punctuated by a euphoric reaction from Erin, who lovingly swats her hands at Tyra in disbelief. “Girl, I started modeling when I was 15 years old, and you are No. 15!” Tyra says without wasting a single moment to self-mythologize. Thank goodness she’s back.
Good feelings all around as the girls welcome back Erin, who mounts her photo on the wall with the others. As everyone basks in the high note they’ve been left on, Tyra congratulates the final 15 models and declares with much fanfare, “The fierceness is going to the next level!” It’s a pseudo call-to-arms that elicits cheers from the girls, and still no one has any idea what it all means. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.