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Friday, June 10, 2005

Keepin' It Real?

I will be the first to admit that I have an unhealthy attraction to Reality television shows, Bob "happy clouds" Ross re-runs, and occasionally tel-evangelists (including Barbara Sher, Suzie Orman, and the other PBS "pledge-week" usual suspects).

There is a mood that underscores the nature of each type of programming. That mood is one of an intense, mind-numbing, sugar high. No sooner do I flip to channel 9 or 2, than the TV zombie dam breaks and vast quantities of drool floods the fertile valley of my mind.

Reality shows had promise at first, much like the invention of television. The birth of television had the promise of opening up previously isolated communities to new visions, new "realities", and new forms of communication, unfettered by politics, greed, and monopolies.

That lasted about 2 weeks.

Of course, there have been reality shows for as long as there's been television. I'm talking about Cooking With Julia, This Old House, Monday Night Football, and even that famously, flamboyantly staged side-show, the Worldwide Wrestling Federation, now called something like WWE.

The Reality shows saturating the airwaves are anything but reality. They are scripted and manipulated from the beginning and done so in such a way that the unsophisticated viewer is deceived into believing what they are actually watching is spontaneous and challenging.

One wonders: What Would ET Think?

The recent entry of Donald Trump, Tommy Hilfiger, Gordon Ramsay, as well as a flood of has-beens and almost-was' that makes you wonder if they've dredged the side alleys, drug rehabs, and temp agencies of Hollywood, California, indicates that the Reality shtick has hit the top of the bell curve, or at least some of us pray it has.

I mean, Evander Holyfield ballroom dancing is just WRONG!

But along the way, I have to admit I've been comforted. I have, after all, watched every episode of America's Next Top Model since Season One and have even written to Tyra Banks, Inc. to approve of them getting rid of the anorexic chick in Season Two (or Three, I can't remember). But before you hiss at me, take notice that this was in between many letters written to my local, state, and federal reps complaining about everything from discrimination in jury selection to Bush's effort to undermine Social Security to the promotion of war criminal John Negroponte to Director of National Intelligence.

After all of that, I need tune out reality, turn on Reality, and drop out before the world harshes even more on my mellow.

Which brings me to Hell's Kitchen.

If you've been a loyal reader of this blog, you would've learned that a year ago, Bruce and I made our way to Merry Olde England and Wales for a couple of weeks of merry-making and fine dining. During that time, I think we caught every episode of Gordon Ramsay's original Reality show produced for Channel 4 called Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was everything American Reality shows were not. Unscripted, honest, full of adult language for an adult audience (no dumbing down for the kiddies, prudes, and FCC), and the only prize given to the participants was maybe that their businesses or jobs would survive for another year.

In short, it was bwilliant.

Off hand, did you know the Brits have nothing established in law that comes remotely close to the protections we have under the First Amendment, yet Gordon Ramsay can speak freely on non-cable television there, while over here it is bleeped out because it is considered by the government to be "obscene" or "harmful to children"? All I can say is that it's a good thing we have a fucking useless First Amendment that the fucked up FCC and goddamn Christo-Fascists can wipe their self-righteous asses with while the rest of us stand around, full of shit, proclaiming we're the freest fucking country in the world.

But I digress.

In Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay seemed genuinely concerned about everyone he tried to help. He laid down the law, yes, but he was fair and even-handed. You could say it was publicity for him, but in England, Gordon Ramsay doesn't need publicity. His numerous restaurants speak for themselves. In a way, I saw it as Ramsay's way of giving back to the small guy/gal. It wasn't charity, because no doubt he charged Channel 4 a modest fee, but you could venture to say that something greater was gained by both the viewing audience and the participants than just a winner's cup for one.

Kitchen Nightmares often delved into the social and psychological dynamics of the small businessperson running a restaurant and the types of folks who are navigated towards working for them. It exceeded where other similar shows fail because it sometimes showed an unlikely transformation, such as the young village woman who took a job as kitchen prep because she was dating the chef, but who by the end dumps the loser "chef" and learns that she was the talent behind the kitchen all along. Or it showed how a struggling woman running a small restaurant in Western Yorkshire put all of her faith and trust into a smarmy 21-year-old who in the end not only could not taste the difference between lamb and beef, but turned out to be a punk-ass racist when he learns he is dismissed.

Obviously someone on this side of the Atlantic was paying attention.

Unfortunately, from what I've seen of Gordon Ramsay's new American Reality show, Hell's Kitchen, it is miles away from Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

Five Thousand, Three Hundred and Eighty-Two, to be precise.

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is commercial British television at it's best, whereas so far, Hell's Kitchen seems to be part of the whole Fox drek machine cranking out such Reality airbiscuits as Trading Spouses, Nanny 911, The Simple Life, Playing It Straight, and Renovate My Family.

Completely formula, like the rest; with the teams, the dorms, the obligatory gay/lesbian stereotype ripe for the salacious or hateful message board chatter, the mundane and uninteresting contests, the backstabbing, and always the self-righteous posturing of the show's namesake.

The first episode of Hell's Kitchen attempts to capture Ramsay as the Formidable-School-Marm-Turned-Chef vibe of Kitchen Nightmares, but then completely abandons the charitable aspect of the latter and twists it into a greed-focused gladiator match with each contestant climbing over any fallen, bloody body to grasp the few coins the cruel Emperor throws down. Ramsay comes across as a tough S.O.B. and a drill sergeant of the first degree, but by the second episode the routine seems laden with frustration.

The behavior of some of the contestants is worse. I mean, how disgusting that in Episode Two, contestant Jeff, doubled-over in crippling pain from kidney stones, receives no sympathy from any team member, except that of one whom disingenuously asks how he is as he clings to a wall, but then saunters off saying "whatever". Frankly, I'm use to the conniving and backstabbing that goes on for our enjoyment in regular everyday Reality television, but I thought this was just a little too much. Too much meanness, too much selfishness, too much inhumanity to man. And to boot, this type of show could be done much better. In fact, it already has.

The other thing I have to admit feeling as I watch Hell's Kitchen is something that Ruth Reichl brought up in an old Salon.com interview I recently discovered. Many of the male chefs trained in Europe, notoriously France, are trained in a "good ole boy" network that excludes women from working in the kitchen and as servers. The same restaurant system also has menus for men (with prices) and one for women (without), while wine selection is always deferred to the male at the table.

Notice who Ramsay picked to work as waiters the first night (Answer: 2 men. French restaurants exclude women from serving as a rule). Also notice that although he has one female sous chef (American, and most likely picked by the producers), his personal Maitre D' is French and male. And notice how he implores all of his staff to "stand up and act like men".

If you ask me, something smells in that kitchen, and it ain't Dewberry's squid.

Watching Hell's Kitchen, the viewer is not left with any impression of how a real kitchen works. The closest we come to how a real kitchen works is Ramsay's hard-ass attitude in expecting perfection and consistency from each chef. But even here he overplays it for the camera.

So like, where are all of the bussers and dishwashers? Who has taken an inventory and ordered the food, and is the food fresh or frozen? What's on the menu and who planned it?

Most importantly, where the hell are all of the line chefs doing lines of coke in the bathroom? Or the walk-in freezer quickies?

Everything else is carefully controlled and scripted. It you believe the show's own message board, the actual restaurant is really a studio. Many of the guests are paid actors. And most are required to sign a contract promising to stay the whole night. In addition, the outside and inside of the studio or restaurant or whatever looks gaudy, and the graphics and artistic production of the show look cheap and trashy, like a tricked-out PT Cruiser.

Still, what can I say? I'm repulsed and compelled to watch. At least for now. Let me remind you, only two episodes have passed, so perhaps it'll pick up.

But just a side thought: notice that Ramsay's name isn't attached to the title of the show.

For now, this seems like a wise business and personal decision.


By the way.....Anyone see The Cut?

Three words to Tommy hisself: Out Of Style.

Now why don't YOU walk the runway!


Blogger molly said...

So right on...we watched Hell's Kitchen and even though I am a reality TV fan, this just went too far. I was actually uncomfortable how mean it was, and i was surprised that the players were taking him seriously. Come on people, people just aren't that rude. It was also so obvious that the diners were paid actors, especially after he called that one woman a slut (or hoe-bag? opr whatever he called her).

Where's Temptation Island? Where's Amish in the City? Bring back good reality TV.

8:51 AM  

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