Fashonista Fedayeen

These are the times when television critics are almost contractually obligated to review the ongoing war coverage and make weighty statements about how the coverage is deeply symbolic of public sentiment or foreign policy, or how we actually have a better grasp on what we're seeing than the average mortal by virtue of our ninja TV-watching skills. There are a few of us, however, who are aberrant enough to admit that nonstop television war coverage depresses and confuses us--and so we turn to television, naturally, for succor.

The number-one recommended strategy when using your television as an escape pod from real life is to find a channel that's incredibly disconnected from the real world. My first, best suggestion is the Style Network, spun off from the original irrelevant cable channel, E!.

There's one caveat to watching the Style Network: You had better like the kind of mindless dance music that qualifies as "music" only because we haven't invented a noun for this irritating-yet-catchy aural rubbish. You had better like bad house music a lot because you'll be hearing it on nearly every show. In fact, you may be hearing the same track on each Style Network show; after a while, the music all blends together.

So do a lot of the shows. The Style Network's offerings fall into a few broad categories:

  • Category One: Shows you watch because you are genuinely concerned with what the Hilton sisters are wearing.

  • Category Two: Shows you watch because you want to look like the Hilton sisters but lack the necessary grabillions of dollars.

  • Category Three: Shows you watch because they're really entertaining in the same way that foreign-language television tends to be: You have no idea what's going on, but you're hooked anyway. There are no Hilton sisters on these shows.

It goes without saying that the average Style Network viewer knows who the Hilton sisters are. For those of you who don't--and how I envy you--let's leave it at this: They are the kind of socialites who could incite the French to bloody revolution just for the chance to behead them. Even the most fashion-besotted Style Network viewer will reach this conclusion after watching one or both Hilton sisters attempting to explain why they like designer Betsey Johnson in a Runway segment, and coming up with, "It's really young? You know?" This actually passes for in-depth analysis on Runway.

Category One shows--Stylemaker, Videofashion, Runway, and Fashion File--are delightful in their disconnect from current events or, for that matter, documented facts. In a typical Style Network moment, Johnson tells interviewer Lauren Ezersky on Runway that her collection was inspired by the artist "Frieda Karlo." Designer (and Are You Hot? arbiter) Randolph Duke bravely shares his pressing woes with us on Stylemaker as the narrator intones gravely, "Getting from point to point is another obstacle that Randolph must face on a daily basis." What the narrator does not include, yet is obvious to anyone watching, is that Duke's transportation ordeal involves walking within Manhattan.

It's the skewed sense of proportion that makes these shows so much fun to watch. When an editor from Entertainment Weekly can sit around and discuss the semiotics of Ashley Judd's wardrobe with the kind of obsessive detail that would have Umberto Eco telling her to dial it down a notch, you know you're in no danger of getting anything so deep as an allusion to current events. You can relax and revel in shows that see nothing wrong in this moment of national crisis with a series of quick jump-cuts that focus on a hem, a protruding collarbone, or sequins in places that would cause Siegfried and Roy to think twice.

In contrast, the Category Two shows--more aspirational than inspirational--are largely a bland and personality-free collection. Former Survivor contestant Elisabeth Hasselbeck (née Filarski) pops up from time to time to host The Look for Less, which, like its cousins Fashion Emergency and Glow, offers 30 minutes of dubious advice issued by people with sketchy credentials. The look on these shows is depressingly stark, all generically tasteful sets and the camera pans too long on the bargain-basement ensembles we're supposed to be taking notes on. Skip these shows; they're trying to be helpful, and it wrecks the Wonderland spell cast by so many other Style Network shows.

To restore that sense of gleeful disorientation, tune in to one of two programs: Behind the Velvet Ropes or Fashiontrance. At first glance, Behind the Velvet Ropes seems like a parody taken from The Daily Show: Hostess Lauren Ezersky looks like the unholy offspring of Cruella De Vil and Miss Havisham and interviews like a star-struck teenager. As if her Noo Yawk accent--which renders "color" as "col-uh" and "cultured" as "cul-chad"--weren't enough, Ezersky has also got the Fashion Dra...awl, in which everyone ends their sentences by dra...gging out the last sylla...ble and ending on a low note. The Fashion Dra...awl, it seems, is as endemic to the Style Network as house music.

The only show for which that blasted soundtrack is appropriate is Fashiontrance, where, true to the show's title, the viewer is quickly lulled into a mindless state of bliss. The program is deceptively simple, yet weird: As house music plays, models walk down runways wearing a designer's collection and little factoids about the clothing and the designer blip across the screen, Pop-Up Video-style. There is literally no other purpose to the show than to play music and fill the screen with footage of models sashaying around.

Fashiontrance is addictive; it's almost a televised form of meditation. Within five minutes of watching, you're riveted by the discovery that Valentino loves to entertain on his yacht. Then you learn that Valentino has "an extensive art collective [sic] including works by Picasso and Toulouse Lautrec."

"Really?" you murmur to yourself. "Does he host the collective on the yacht?" It's this kind of show that encourages you to clear your mind of all worries--and all thought, really. After 30 minutes of Fashiontrance factoids, you're unaccountably proud of Donna Karan for advocating yoga, and feeling less tense yourself. Of course, if you're not deep enough in the zone, you may be wondering if Frieda Karlo will be in Valentino's art collective with the Hilton sisters, but that's a small price to pay.

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