TV Watch: If "Food Network Star" has often felt a bit wheezy in Season 9, it's still had its moments
Click here for a preview of tomorrow's Episode 6.
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.
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."