Zoe surprisingly likable in Bravo's newest ‘Project'

“The Rachel Zoe Project” is a rather arty-sounding name for what is basically a typical Bravo reality series about the glamour of serving the rich. (See also: “Work Out,” “Blow Out,” “Flipping Out,” “Welcome to the Parker.”) As usual, it features a boss with a vision – celebrity stylist Zoe – and the often at-odds assistants and employees and significant others who help her realize her dream (and keep her life more or less on track).

It's not a world away from TLC's “Ashley Paige: Bikini or Bust,” another tale of a fashion figure trying to kick her career up a notch – and one clearly built on the Bravo model – except that where designer Paige's story is cast as one of comical eccentricity and life on the edge of ruin, Zoe's is a more glittering tale about the demands of success, as the subject attempts to turn her taste into a brand.

Branding is, of course, what “The Rachel Zoe Project” is meant to accomplish: The story it tells will become the next chapter in the biography, or the myth, both detailing and enacting Zoe's intended move from a life of reflected glory – in which she is mostly famous for dressing the famous – to one in which the glory emanates from herself. The project in “The Rachel Zoe Project,” which premiered Tuesday, is Rachel Zoe.

Zoe has been something of a lightning rod for controversy and animosity. A skinny thing herself, she has been blamed for the “size zero” (and beyond) fashion trend, and it has been rumored, though never substantiated, that she helps keep her clients thin by dealing them drugs. (It's the sort of thing that Zoe-haters, who seem to be many, would like to think true, and so it continues to circulate. She denied the drug claim last year in a New York Times Magazine profile.) But to blame the institutionalized anorexia of the fashion and entertainment worlds on one woman and the relatively small group of women she dresses seems a little much, even if that pack includes the much-photographed Cameron Diaz and Anne Hathaway and (formerly) Lindsay Lohan – you only have to look at the stick figures dominating the new fall TV season to know it runs deeper than that.

The idea that a person can get paid scads of money for telling someone else what to wear can also seem sort of, you know, wrong, though movie stars have always depended on other people to help them look good – it's just that they were all on the same studio payroll back when. Certainly, I had more respect for the job after watching the first hour of the show and found Zoe surprisingly likable, if a little mannered at times – all that “Die!” and “J'adore” to indicate she likes something. But she does have some sort of profound relationship with clothes: The gasps that escape when she sees something she really loves are clearly genuine.

Still, as Heidi Klum likes to say, “One day you're in, and the next you're out,” and while Zoe's boho-retro '60s-'70s vintage chic has made its mark on Celebrityville, she seems to know that she can't afford to stand still. And so there is a kind of undercurrent of desperation, at times verging on panic, that runs through the show and gives it what dramatic movement it has.

What might be called the black-comic relief – and what will keep some watching and drive others away in annoyance – comes from the friction between Zoe's territorial assistant Taylor Jacobson and new kid Brad Goreski, whom Zoe has hired to assist Jacobson. He's a chatty preppy-fabulous sort; she's all about the work. (“Taylor doesn't have friends,” Zoe says. “She doesn't like people.”) Coming attractions hint also at tensions between Zoe and husband-partner Rodger Berman, though you can trust the coming attractions of reality shows even less than you can trust the shows themselves.