Hyphen TV: Here Go Hell Come?

November 30, 2010

Calvin Tran on Bravo's The Fashion Show

Hope you all had a restful and delicious Turkeyday, my fellow TV fans! Unfortunately, national holiday = repeats and recaps, but there was a tiny bit of new television to cling onto this past week. Okay, basically one show. I still need to check out your suggestions as well (my parents' house is TV-free -- I KNOW -- so I haven't have a chance to catch up). Let's dig in!

As soon as the main group on The Walking Dead decided to leave their campground for the Center for Disease Control, I got a sinking feeling that Glenn and his wily Atlanta street smarts (um, since when is a pizza delivery guy so intimate with narrow alleyways? I'm fine with it though, eh) might not be so critical anymore. So it was nice to see Glenn survive another episode and have a brief moment of real emotion when he angrily and passionately declared that (grossness alert for the squeamish) zombie corpses are burned, human ones are buried. This episode largely focused on where one draws the line between human/nonhuman and safety/paranoia, and I liked seeing the depth of Glenn's conviction on the subject. Man do I hope they're not setting me up for a really sad death scene later on...!

The only Walking Dead image I'm allowed to post...use your imagination

This week's main event, however, was The Fashion Show. To update the probably all of you who don't watch, this is a Project Runway knockoff from Bravo, the network that originally brought you Project Runway (the show was snatched away to Lifetime in a bold move by now-fired CEO Andrea Wong). The premise is basically exactly the same on both shows, though the second season of TFS shows that some tinkering has been done: the designers work in teams, the terrifyingly intense Iman has replaced the comparatively bubbly Kelly Rowland. But the dominating force of season two is clear: New York City/Illinois-based, Vietnamese American designer Calvin Tran.

Calvin's persona -- and please note that I assume all reality contestants are edited/editing themselves into characters, we're not talking about the actual person him or herself -- is a Thanksgiving-worthy cornucopia of stereotypes, surprises, possible personality disorders, embarrassments, and, perhaps, talent(?). Sadly, the latter is far, far down the list of characteristics that the camera examines on a show that purports to be about design, aesthetic, and most of all, skill. But that's hardly new in the world of reality television, so what's Calvin really all about?

Calvin Tran's brow is furrowed, his v-neck is deep

The first thing that strikes viewers about the contestant is his thick accent -- it's so thick, in fact, that everything he says must be subtitled. Somewhat strangely, Calvin is one of four foreign-born, accented contestants whose words have been deemed too unintelligible to air without subtitles, not to mention the accent heavy enough to delay traffic on host Iman (don't worry, every syllable she utters is so enunciated and accentuated that there's no mistaking what the Somali American supermodel is caustically spitting out -- who's she so angry at??). Calvin's grasp of English appears to be the weakest of everyone's; semi-nonsensical phrases like "Oh, here go hell come" have brought him to the attention of The Soup and YouTube. But are we laughing at his twisted English, or the motivations that lead him to say such threatening thoughts? Ah, this brings us to Thing We Realize About Calvin Tran #2: the guy is mean.

It's one thing to be competitive (it is a competition, after all). It's one thing to dislike working in teams (only one designer can win, after all). It's even a more or less legitimate thing to carve out a niche for yourself as a show's "villain." But Calvin's ability to immediately alienate and insult his teammates, burst out with his own visions and demands, refuse to listen to his teammates while claiming that they are the ones not listening to him... there's more here than just a villain wannabe. Even Iman has called him out for his unapologetic apology to a teammate, and Isaac Mizrahi seems visibly alarmed when Calvin dominates during team sit-downs with the sea anemone-haired designer. Calvin's inability to play nicely with others actually led to a switch-up this week, as he and another contestant switched teams to see whether that would improve the situation for his losing team (it didn't, so perhaps Calvin shouldn't shoulder all the blame after all). Since when does a reality show make changes to reduce drama?!

Are there emotionally broken employees off camera at Calvin's store?

Another layer to the Calvin Tran onion is one that comes up with all male contestants on The Fashion Show and Project Runway and Top Chef: Just Desserts and Blush: The Search for the Next Great Makeup Artist (shut up, that show was great): whenever we're focused on an area that tends to appeal to straight women and gay men, the men's sexuality is always an omnipresent factor. I would be more annoyed with Fashion Show contestant David's constant reassertion of his heterosexuality if it weren't such an ongoing theme with his occasional straight male counterparts. Calvin hasn't confirmed his sexual preference on screen, and I certainly don't expect or need him to, but it's clear that the show is playing up his "bitchier" characteristics: he describes his dress as "shiny and slutty and evil," and a teammate comments that that description suits Calvin as well. He thinks someone else's outfit "belongs on a hooker." Not necessarily things that a straight man wouldn't say, but you can practically feel Bravo's sassy Z snaps as they gleefully edit Calvin's choicest lines together.

Does Calvin's Asian sound and appearance play into this too? For a multitude of reasons that we don't need to get into at the moment (but I welcome discussion in the comments), the fey Asian homosexual male stereotype is nearly as old as his Caucasian counterpart. Is Calvin another victim of skillful editing and a desire for a certain character type, or has he somewhat internalized society's standards, or is this just how he is, or should we not even waste our breath on what he's like in the workroom and just focus on what he puts on the runway (I liked his dress -- not love, just like)? I mean the guy has two stores of his own; there must be some sort of talent there, right?

Calvin Tran's shiny, slutty, and/or evil look on last week's episode of The Fashion Show

In the end, it is of course about making entertaining television, and conflict and melodrama will always win out over competence and cooperation. Let's face it: if it weren't for Calvin, the show would be far more boring. Though this is a discussion for another blog post, I always find find flawed, troubled characters more interesting and fulfilling than their well-adjusted counterparts. The "model minority" debate is decades old at this point, and I for one am ready for more Asian pop culture characters with depth and problems and perhaps the occasional well-placed bitch slap. Is Calvin taking us a step further down that road? Only time and Iman will tell...


Dianne Choie


Dianne Choie's TV is in Brooklyn, NY. She has a cat, several reusable shopping bags, and other mildly annoying stereotypes of youngish people who live in Brooklyn.