‘Project Runway: Threads’ and the Unexpected Joy of Children’s Reality Competitions

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There isn’t much that you need to know about Lifetime’s newest unscripted program, Project Runway: Threads, in order to decide whether you’re going to watch it. All you really need to know is that it’s a fashion design competition featuring teens and tweens who are ten times better at conceptualizing and creating original fashion designs than you are at simply getting dressed in the morning. Threads, along with Fox’s child cooking competition MasterChef Junior (which is quite possibly the cutest show ever), may just usher in a new sub-genre of reality programming: Talented Kids Doing Awesome Shit While Making Adult Viewers Feel Bad About Their Lack of Skills.

There is something hilariously sad about watching an eight-year-old flawlessly cook a perfect meal while you’re eating a bowl of instant ramen, or seeing award-winning designers praise a 12-year-old’s beautiful homemade dress while you’re in a ragged hoodie. It’s so inspiring and impressive that it’s hard not to go into defense mode — I can’t be the only one who has muttered “nerd” under my breath while watching the National Spelling Bee — but that just speaks to what makes these child-centric shows such a welcome and pleasant watch. We tune into most reality programs to see adults fight each other or screw something up; we watch shows like Threads to watch these children succeed.

Premiering tomorrow at 10:30 PM (and then moving to 10 PM in following weeks), Threads is the latest entry in the Project Runway franchise. The basic idea is the same — contestants are given a short time frame to create an entire design — but this time the focus is on young children (in the pilot episode, the contestants are ages 12 and 13). With the focus on younger kids, Threads makes a few tweaks to the Project Runway formula.

There will be three new kids competing each week (which will surely cut down on the adolescent anxiety and subsequent crying during elimination rounds, and also allows the series to showcase more kids while giving them equal time). The children are also allowed to have an assistant — all three children in the first episode chose a parent, but I don’t think a relative is a requirement — who helps them with things like simple sewing. Like any good reality show, there are twists and surprises designed to put added pressure on the contestants and/or to allow them to sabotage the competition. But it’s all fairly calm for a reality competition, almost hesitant to make things too hard for the kids.

This isn’t a complaint — I may love my fucked-up and twisted children’s reality shows, but I’m not a total monster — though it does make the series a little more low-key than most viewers might want from a design competition. Because reality shows are such an inherently adult world, it’s natural to expect the contestants to be treated as adults, too; when I found out they were allowed to have their parents assist, my immediate reaction was “But that’s cheating!,” even though they are 12 years old. In that regard, Threads is inferior to MasterChef Junior, in which Gordon Ramsay does exhibit a nicer, more patient and fatherly side of his personality when talking to the children, but they are still expected to cook by themselves, to be away from their parents, and to create meals that aren’t just good for an eight-year-old but actually restaurant quality.

The pilot episode of Threads introduces three children: 13-year-old Bradford, who has been designing since he was three; 12-year-old Cambria, who taught herself to sew; and 12-year-old Kenzie, who wants to have her own fashion empire when she grows up (she already sells her designs online). They are tasked with creating a red carpet-ready dress — and have a second task thrown in last minute, but I don’t want to spoil it — with just the help of their assistants. As you’d expect, the kids are overly ambitious, hard on themselves, and easily overwhelmed. In general, 12-year-olds do not fare well under pressure, especially when that pressure includes creating a dress from scratch, presenting it to famous fashion designers and celebrities (Kelly Osbourne, Jaime King), and trying to win $10,000.

The children aren’t really competing here — they are aware they’re in a competition, but mostly they are working hard to impress the judges, not to show up a peer — so it’s the parents who become the source of drama, especially when they butt heads with their children. The kids cry when frustrated — wouldn’t you? — and occasionally get angry with their parents for either not being helpful enough or trying to being too helpful. The kids also sometimes get distracted, in that way that all kids do, flitting toward a piece of fabric that they don’t necessarily need, prompting one mother to, almost subconsciously, snap “Focus!” In fact, it’s a mother who has the biggest freakout of the episode, paranoid that she accidentally sabotaged her child’s shot at victory.

Most of the tension in Threads stems from the fact that the parental assistants just aren’t good. Their children are far better designers and seamstresses, so, more often than not, the parents get in the way or slow down the process. On a program like this or MasterChef Junior, there is always an emphasis put on the children’s ages, with reminders of how young they are popping up in just about every conversation and on-screen chyron. It’s both to impress viewers with their young talents and also, to a lesser extent, make us aware that we’re not talented.

But that’s also half the fun: rooting for these kids who can do what we can’t and marveling at the idea of children excelling at adult tasks. These shows are light entries in the reality show canon and don’t quite fit in with sensationalism, cheap viewing, and exploitation. But reality competition programs featuring kid contestants are creating their own little niche with shows focused on empowerment, success, and encouragement — and the utter adorableness of children acting like real people!