Saturday, July 06, 2013

TV Watch: If "Food Network Star" has often felt a bit wheezy in Season 9, it's still had its moments


Easily the dopiest challenge of Season 9 of Next Food Network Star was Episode 4's "Dinner and a Movie," in which three-person teams not only had to create a dinner suitable for a genre of movie -- romance, Western, and musical -- but do a trailer for it. Team Musical (Rodney the pie man, Chris, and Lovely) sang, God help us. Click here for a preview of tomorrow's Episode 6.

by Ken

In fairness, by Season 9 of anything it's apt to be a tough haul to find new things to do or new ways of doing things. There's no question in my mind that the first few seasons of what is known now as simply Food Network Star were the best, because we learned so much about how shows are both conceived and, even more, produced, and I suspect that the Food Network executives themselves, notably programming chief Bob Tuschman and marketing and branding chief Susie Fogelson, were forced to clarify in their own minds what they're looking for in their on-air personalities.

Bob and Susie have hardly been in evidence in Season 9, which has been mostly entrusted to Food Network stars Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Alton Brown, which is fine, I guess -- their general role as coaches and judges makes more sense and works better than last season's strange experiment of having them serve as mentor to a team each chose from among the ranks of the not-quite-finalists. You could see the pressure to try something new, even if this something new seemed pretty self-evidently silly.

You'd think that the quality of individual seasons would depend above all upon the mix of talents and personalities chosen, but that hasn't been my experience (speaking as someone who, as best I can recall, hasn't missed an episode of any of the seasons), I think because some law of nature seems to dictate that in winnowing the heap of audition tapes down to a cadre of finalists, you always seem to wind up with the same sort of mix:

* a handful of people who are so obviously unfit that you wonder how they could have gotten through the screening process;

* at the other extreme, another handful of people who ultimately turn out to have something distinctive to share in the way of culinary knowledge and skills combined with the kind of personalty that will actually draw viewers (note that it usually takes a number of weeks for this group to assert itself);

* and then all the people in between, who clearly have some of the desired qualities but not enough of them, including a fair number who might at some point present the complete package but can't figure out how to put it all together.

I don't blame the producers for not being able to refine the talent-selection process more successfully. Is there any occupation where it's been figured out better? I think the above breakdown of talent potential relative to ultimate achievement might be applied to a lot of other walks of life.

One thing the coaches and judges have hardly any control over is the pace at which contestants come to know themselves well enough to draw on what it is they might have to offer. On the most basic level, it remains astonishing how many "finalists" (I put finalists in quotes because in most seasons the people we see in Episode 1 are the "finalists" from the off-air selection process) have apparently never thought to ask themselves why viewers might want to watch their TV show. Even after all these years of judges talking about contestants' "culinary point of view," it continues to come as a surprise to an alarming number of the newbies that they need to have one just as a basic component of some reason for viewers to tune in their show.

It's more understandable that contestants don't understand how exposing it is to do a show like Food Network stars do, and how unprepared they are for being exposed in this way. This remains true despite the large number of contestants in previous seasons who have undergone convulsive on-camera traumas over just such issues. (In every season at some point at least one contestant is going to break down in tears.) We humans don't often reflect on how un-self-knowing we are.

Sometimes the lack of self-knowledge is simple and factual. There was the highly personable, attractive, and even knowledgeable young Brad, who thought he had solved his "culinary POV" problem by presenting himself as "the professional chef," with no clue for many weeks as to how inappropriate and self-defeating moniker that was for him to be claiming. Eventually a run of rocky encounters with people who might fairly present themselves publicly as "professional chefs" sort of sank in. Being smart can be dangerous if you aren't aware of the limits to your smartitude.

Sometimes the lack of self-knowledge is equally basic but harder to recognize for the person affected. I'm thinking of this season's Danushka. I suppose it's harder for extremely attractive people to ask that hard question of why people might want to watch them on Food Network, since nearly all of their life experience has consisted of people always wanting to watch them. But Danushka, who apparently can actually cook, judging from the judges' responses to a number of dishes she prepared, not only seems not to have thought about what would make people watch her show, but she seems shocked to be told how arrogant and dismissive she comes across on-camera. Of course, when it comes to on-air loathsomeness combined with utter obliviousness to same, no one is ever likely to touch Penny from Season 7, who week after week -- until she was finally put out of my misery -- made at least this viewer want to see her suffer an unimaginably horrific and torturous demise.

Still, the judges do try to point the contestants in the direction of greater self-understanding. The most striking case so far in Season 9 has been the camera presentation in which Chris, who had seemed a pleasant fellow with some cooking skills but not much profile, mentioned that food had healed his "broken life," and Bobby Flay picked up on it, obviously recognizing a story similar to his own. With some difficulty Chris explained that he had been a drug addict and general substance abuser and that food had given him something to hold onto and rebuild his life. Everyone in the room was astonished and electrified, and suddenly I suspect that everyone watching as well had a completely new image of Chris. He explained to Bobby that he found this difficult to talk about, which I don't doubt, and Bobby, bless him, pointed out that what he has accomplished in getting his life together is a success story.

It's not that anyone expects Chris to talk about his former "broken life" every time he's on camera. It's that it's a key part of who he is, and how he relates to food and cooking and sharing with other people, and a part of him that, as he comes to feel more comfortable with the road he has traveled, can make him distinctively relatable for a lot of viewers.

It might not occur to many people that a show like Food Network Star might be a good place to learn more about people. To me it's still, nine seasons in, what's most appealing about the show.


For a "Sunday Classics" fix anytime, visit the stand-alone "Sunday Classics with Ken."

Labels: ,


At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

BECAUSE Danushka can cook I prefer her over a phone drama/life story more "attractive" competitor.

But I think these shows are driving away the people really interested in cooking, and perhaps LEARNING about more cooking. I'm not watching it unless I stumble on it. I hated the cupcake wars MORE but not by much.

I'm missing The Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child and that French guy. RIP. Back to Channel 11.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Fair enough, Bil, except that Danushka didn't show the slightest interest in sharing anything except her personal magnificence. Did she ever have anything to say about her food? Her only subject seemed to be her splendid self

About the only way I might enjoy seeing her on TV would be seeing her "blowed up real good," as the SCTV "Farm Film Report" boys used to say,



Post a Comment

<< Home