This Thursday, Lifetime will expand the kids’ reality competition genre with the premiere of Project Runway Junior. Like MCJ, this series is basically the same as the original version, but with teens (ages 13-17) who are incredibly skilled at fashion design and sewing, and can create an amazing outfit in the time it takes you to change into a few mediocre outfits before deciding what to wear in the morning. It’s another lovely program, and one that will surely do well on television, because it gives you talented, optimistic kids to root for (while also, of course, making you wonder why you never learned to sew at all, let alone make a runway-ready outfit inspired by the New York City skyline).
But even more than MasterChef Junior, Project Runway Junior runs high on emotions that only heighten the viewing experience. It is impossible not to get personally invested in the competition, to maintain the stoicism not to cry or gasp when a favorite is eliminated. And there’s another aspect to the show that only elevates its power and value: as Tim Gunn and Kelly Osbourne have said, these kids are sort of loner misfits in their lives at home — the girls who sew alone after school or the boys who are bullied by classmates for not being stereotypically “masculine.” On Project Runway Junior, these children are no longer outsiders. There, they have the chance to spend weeks with likeminded peers and encouraging judges. They are being celebrated for their eccentricities, skills, and life goals, rather than bullied or outcasted because of it.
Maybe that’s why we love these kids’ reality competition shows. They don’t exploit the way that docuseries do, but instead are full of endless encouragement. Neither is a sugarcoated competition — Ramsay and Gunn can speak sternly — but neither discourages the children from continuing to work on achieving their dreams. Contestants’ dismissals are softened by the judges explaining how well they did, how great their meal or design was, and how they’re going to go far if they keep working. They emphasize to the children that they should never give up. They make the children feel like there is a world in which they belong. That world may not be their high-school classroom, but they’ll find it eventually.