That Familiar UV Buzz: No Next Star on the Food Network

Having dinner with Jen and Frank, our ol' buddy from Alaska, at Storyteller's Cafe last night brought me at last to a realization over which I have lost zero sleep through the last few years: I am a reality show snob. Frank posed the question, "Do you watch Top Chef?," to which my basic reply was, "Uh, no... yeah, I, uh -- I don't know why I haven't watched it, because I watch tons of Food Network, so you think it would be a relatively easy thing to switch over to -- uh, I've heard good things about it -- it's on Bravo, right?" Nothing like getting to the point, Rik. The conversation veered away from -- and then eventually stumbled back into -- Top Chef, and I really couldn't pinpoint in my head exactly why I don't watch it, except for the fact that viewing it on any sort of regular basis would force me to memorize Bravo's channel number, and I really just don't have the room for a 113th number in my skull. But the real reason I don't watch it is because, due to certain operational aspects of the show, I consider it to be a reality show (which it is), and as everyone with whom I work knows full well from my frequent tirades over American Non-Idol, I... don't... like... reality... shows!

Which means I am the biggest hypocrite in the world, because I actually do watch one particular example of the fetid genre: The Next Food Network Star. I didn't even see the first season, and couldn't even tell you for sure who won it that year, but I can tell you this: I got hooked on it... and fast. So much so, that when the time came for the third season to begin, I was amazed that I was anticipating it so highly. And what did I get for this anticipation? An affirmation as to why I can't stand reality shows in the first place: chiefly, the mind-fugging the producers of these shows are engaging in with their inexplicably loyal audiences. I will not go so far as to accuse the higher-ups behind Next Food with scripting what is supposed to be a real competition, but they are certainly involved with tampering at a high level. Coming down to the penultimate episode last week, it was revealed that Jag, one of the two finalists, was caught fudging the facts of his past, and thus he was forced into "resigning" from the competition. Frankly, I can't see what not actually serving in Afghanistan has to do with being able to prepare a soufflé, but I guess lying about graduation from cooking school does. (Even if some of the best cooks I know never got near such a place.)

Outside of the fact that Jag was the only one on this season who created even halfway delicious-looking dishes, I guess Food Network just doesn't like liars. But that is precisely what they did on nearly every promo and sneak peek of every episode of this season: lie. Lie about outcomes, and mislead through taking quotes out of context to make it seem as if something else was being referenced. And, ultimately, lie by acting shocked at the revelation of Jag's mistruths onscreen, and by surprising the audience with it at the last moment, when this actually happened several months ago. To know this, and then take an audience along for a ride for several weeks in which certain contestants build up followings, and then to pull the rug out from under that audience. If the intent is to make the audience feel the same queasiness of broken trust that the producers are maintaining they went through, they have failed, because all I felt was that surely, at some point in preparing the show, Jag's credentials were probably checked out, and long before they actually put cameras on him. If not, then this show is run by rubes of the most common sort. Because, if they didn't bother to check him out before filming, then why would it matter later? Surely, these people knew this was going to come up at some point, and just had the cameras ready to record the fall.

This whole concluding nightmare is only one thing that is wrong with the show. Most of the food looked inedible, most of the contestants were nightmares of personality, most of them barely seemed aware they were doing this to be on the friggin' camera, and worst of all, the show got incredibly gimmicky with the challenges. Too gimmicky. I preferred the second season where there seemed to be more of a concentration on skills needed for actually filming shows, and where there also seemed to be more focus on the actual food. Perhaps the reason none of this season's dishes really impressed me was because I didn't really get to know the food they were creating, and just got an endless cavalcade of bad facial tics and evil glances from contestant to contestant (though most of them actually were directed at the slyly evil Colombe, with whom I naturally fell into instant love, mainly because she is exactly the sort of Zen-artiste blond chickie with whom I have mistakenly fallen for time and again, always to my regret. This was no different.) In the second season, there were at least four contestants who created dishes that made my mouth water constantly; here, I don't think any of them could have actually graduated from culinary school, let alone Jag.

And do you want tampering? How about bringing the person back whom everyone despised, Colombe, as one of the assistants in a later challenge, clearly giving the advantage to the other contestant by letting them choose the other assistant first. Because why would anyone dare choose Colombe first, even if she is actually fairly competent in the kitchen? (She did win the initial challenge.) Who won the challenge is not important here; it's just the fact that the other person they brought back was probably the most beloved contestant. Don't tell me the producers didn't know in advance what the outcome of pairings would be. And by bringing Amy back, the in-denial-about-her-snobbiness French-married mom, to replace Jag, it immediately explained exactly why there was such concentration on her feelings early in that episode. But she and Rory, the other finalist, are both unremarkable in both presentation and personality, and if I hear one more thing about backyard bistros or gourmets next door (their boring "identities", both much fretted over in the run), this budding home cook is going to puke his next six meals up before even making them.

I'm not sure I will even watch tonight's finale, because 1) I am not interested at this point, and 2) I doubt that I would watch any show these two were on again. (Besides, I accidentally ran into the final result earlier completely by accident, so what's the point?) Then again, they are going to have Colombe on for a cast reunion. Just to watch this immensely tedious bunch of bores have to twist themselves into knots to put on a smile for her just might be the highlight of the show so far.

And for me, for good. This soufflé has burst... I'm going to check out Top Chef...


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