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Vanity Fair

Rodeo Roadshow/Runway Rubout

The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime's underhyped and unheraldedOn the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee's long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel--to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)

The staging and shooting of On the Road is a couple cuts above what one might expect, a testament to what a little dash of location scouting and sympathetic imagination can do. The premiere began with Santino and Austin driving up to a grand ranch entrance in Texas, the buildings beyond on the scale of Giant or J. R. Ewing's Southfork. Their mission is to doll up teenage tomboy Sadie Lynn (such a country-music name!) for the Cowgirl Chicks Ball. She is given a sensational visual intro. Through the windshield the two designers see her whipping around the rodeo ring on horseback like Annie Oakley, twirling from side to side and standing upright. Austin and Santino exchange Omigods and Austin says, in his best Corky St. Clair, "There's something mythological about this woman and beast." Sadie dismounts, introduces herself to Santino and Austin and us, and I have to say is completely adorable--all of the Cowgirl Chicks we meet are, and the entire episode recalls Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner in its easy-does-it charm and atmosphere. Austin and Santino are wisecracky throughout, but there's nothing patronizing or nasty-spirited about their humor, and they're greeted and treated with generosity apart from the askance looks that Austin attracts.

The sweetness of the series launch was all the more welcome following the sour season 8 premiere of Project Runway, whose judging section had Michael Kors, Nina Garcia, and host Heidi Klum acting almost capriciously, callously harsh and cheap-shotty with the contestants, like three pickles competing for attention from the same jar for Most Quotable Takedown. Extending the judging portion--the show runs 90 minutes instead of the previous hour-long format--didn't produce deeper, more detailed analysis, just additional, annoying almost sadistic repetition and reiteration of specific criticisms, as if the contestants standing in the police line-up needed to hear everything in triplicate. Only Tim Gunn acted like a mensch and avoided a scolding manner and put thought into his words and the effect of his words beforehand.

It looks like an incredibly talented, varied slate of competitors this season, but I wonder if Kors and Garcia haven't been too long in the saddle, their verbal repertoire scratchily limited compared to Sadie Lynn's exuberant array of tricks.