I Like to Watch

The road to "Hell's Kitchen" is paved with chain-smoking line cooks, while "Top Chef's" top-shelf gastronomists are all foam and no flamb

By Heather Havrilesky

Published April 6, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

In prehistoric times -- you know, a few hours after God divided the land from the seas -- the world was our oyster. And by "our" I mean carbon-based life forms, of course. Who would rule these freshly minted wilds? Would giant amoebas tromp out of the seas on their pseudopods and slurp pineapples from the trees? Would snakes sprout wings and shoot off spores? Would monkeys learn to walk on two legs and make tacos and purchase long-term disability insurance?

Those were unpredictable times, indeed. No one knew if dinosaurs would reign supreme indefinitely, necessitating complicated accidental injury riders on caveman life-insurance policies. No one knew whether saber-tooth-cat meat would fall out of favor suddenly, bankrupting big-game hunter conglomerates and unraveling the complicated credit default swaps used to fund their exorbitantly expensive nomadic lifestyles. If paramecium colonies suddenly grew pseudo-hands and learned to type sophisticated political commentary, would the orangutan blogging community slowly disband?

The early days of reality TV were similarly uncertain. Every few weeks, reality producers (see also: unskilled workers who migrated south after the dot-com collapse) would dream up a new formula: "Let's put 15 aspiring massage therapists into a den of hungry lions and watch what happens!" "Let's offer a bunch of toddlers all the espresso they can drink, then set them loose on a ranch full of recovering alcoholics! We'll call it 'Scared Sober!'" "Let's strap a gigantic tuna casserole onto Tyra Banks' back, then throw her into a pool full of ravenous dolphins!"

These days, however, the surviving reality TV producers wear Italian loafers and they don't sneak whiskey into the conference room anymore. Their meetings sound a little bit more like this: "How about another a rock 'n' roll version of 'American Idol'?" "Have we considered a celebrity 'Amazing Race'?" "Let's do 'Top Chef' with some of those really angry, slutty chicks from 'Flavor of Love.'" "What if we did our own 'The Real Housewives of Miami.' but called it 'Miami's Millionaire Mommies'?"

Skin the copycat
It shouldn't come as a surprise that 50 versions of the same winning formula dominate the reality landscape. Five years ago, weren't there 15 versions of "Everybody Loves Raymond" in the sitcom world? How many hundreds of varieties of "Law & Order" have we witnessed over the past 18 years?

Even so, the repetitive nature of television never ceases to stun those of us who have our heads so far up the boob tube's ass, we can smell what Les Moonves ate for breakfast this morning. Today, the question isn't whether you're a fan of "Paradise Hotel" or "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here," the question is which of the dance reality competitions you prefer, "Dancing With the Stars," "So You Think You Can Dance" or "Step It Up and Dance" (Bravo's latest addition to the genre)? Do you want your celebrities following The Donald around or seeking rehab from Dr. Drew? Do you tune in for the performances on "Nashville Star," "The Next Great American Band" or "American Idol"?

Of course, one of the biggest schisms in the reality competition genre exists between "Top Chef" (10 p.m. EDT Wednesdays on Bravo) with its highfalutin foodie cheftestants, and "Hell's Kitchen" (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox) with its sideshow freaks and enraged demon chef Gordon Ramsay. (If you haven't read it yet, don't miss Alex Koppelman's great piece on Ramsay's transformation from fine, thoughtful chef into cartoon asshole.)

If I'd never seen either show, the grittier and more down-to-earth line cooks and aspiring househusbands of "Hell's Kitchen" might get my vote. But this show's scrappy side is all but eclipsed by its flashy Fox-style ferocity. Take the opening voiceover to the first episode, delivered in a demonic tone usually reserved for championship wrestling matches: "Now we are reawakening the beast, and the dark lord reigns again!" Is this a cooking competition or a Tenacious D reunion tour?

Next we see Ramsay in an explosive selection of flash-forwards, a whole season's worth of abusive, spitty outbursts on display. In them, Ramsay is anxious to criticize everything from bad style choices to an inadequate shrimp risotto. Of course, the man might be less angry if his casting director didn't consistently recruit such a curious assortment of sad sacks and addled ne'er-do-wells, none of whom seem to know how to pronounce "risotto," let alone cook it. It's hard to believe that Ramsay is going to allow one of these confused cretins to become the executive chef of his new restaurant in L.A.

The depraved nature of this crowd is best summed up by the comments of contestant Jason, who suffers from the (alarmingly common) notion that an appearance on a reality TV show will transform him into a whole new man. "Winning 'Hell's Kitchen' would totally change my life," he tells the camera. "I'm no longer just Jason. It's Jason who won 'Hell's Kitchen' and has a pocketful of money and has to beat women off with a stick, for God's sake!"

Look, I'm all for trotting out deeply mediocre humans for the mean-spirited amusement of viewers at home. It works for "American Idol." It works for "The Real Housewives of New York" and "Flavor of Love" and "Rock of Love with Bret Michaels." Indeed, mediocre humans are the unbleached all-purpose flour of the reality TV bakery.

But on "Hell's Kitchen," it's different. These people aren't merely naive and unimpressive; they're deeply troubled. In the first episode of the season, one of them makes Chef Ramsay a "tartare" made of raw venison, diver scallops, caviar, capers and white chocolate. Did he get the recipe from one of those "Big Brother 9" eat-this-nasty-liquefied-food challenges? Ramsay showily vomits into a garbage can for several minutes as the responsible cook turns pale.

And when these hapless cooks struggle to work together to get appetizers to the diners at the Hell's Kitchen restaurant, it's like a scene straight out of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Meanwhile, Ramsay roams through the kitchen like a deeply depressed sadist looking for a sack of kittens to throw in the nearest lake. After the temper tantrums are over and the annoyed, hungry patrons wander home, the miscreant chefs retreat to their living quarters to chain-smoke and trade insults and sob into their hands.

When did such a depressing spectacle start to pass as entertainment? Dimwitted, insecure cooks, a chaotic kitchen, wasted food, and a raging hothead throwing chicken at the wall and screaming in the poor, mixed-up chefs' ears as they try desperately to learn how to cook scallops under pressure. It's like watching amoebas trying to type or saber-tooth cats trying to dance a polka or Tyra Banks trying to outswim a dolphin with a tuna casserole strapped to her back. (OK, that last one would be more entertaining than depressing.)

Some of this dejected spirit must be in the air, though, because "Top Chef" feels a little lumpy and inadequate this season, too. Sure, the cheftestants are as overconfident and snooty as they ever were, with Spike providing the zany slacker suspense ("What are you doing, hanging out and drinking beer? Are you sure the veal is cooked properly?") and Richard offering a steady flow of molecular gastronomy punch lines ("Oh my, a goat cheese foam! And the eucalyptus is only for smelling! ).

But even if you're a fan of having a big waft of eucalyptus hit your nose right before you dig into your meal, the cheftestants this season don't seem half as competent as those from the past two seasons, at least not so far. In their scramble to find a Marcel (Season 2's pretentious kitchen chemist) and a CJ (Season 3's wisecracker) and a Hung (Season 3's cocky winner) they've landed a room full of sulking babies. Hostess Padma Lakshmi can up trot out some impressive cleavage, judge Tom Colicchio can glare and roll his eyes with increasing frequency, judge Gail Williams can smack her lips with unnerving zest, but that can't distract us from the fact that these cheftestants were chosen, in large part, because two of them (Zoi and Jennifer) are dating, and another (Andrew) thinks it's a really good idea, when presenting his dish to the judges and assembled guests at a dinner, to get on his knees and imitate an Oompa Loompa.

And come on. "Make a dish that's based on one of your favorite movies!"? What is this, a weekend cooking retreat for the idle rich hosted by Wolfgang Puck and Jerry Bruckheimer? Get real, you sorry sons of quiches! I want the challenge where everyone has to make a convincing soufflé from head cheese and sea cucumbers.

Also? Enough with the teams, teams, teams! We all know that the only point of teams is to foster cheftestant personality clashes. Yes, we can see that most of these people would kill each other with their bare hands if they were confined to a small kitchen together with only lunchmeat and Wonder Bread to work with. So what? Angry confrontations are to reality shows what ugly couches and wisecracking children are to sitcoms and earnest-seeming demon serial killers are to procedural dramas. We don't care anymore!

Since I manufactured my own personal mini-me, I'm hungry all the time. I can't eat every second of the day without turning into Jabba the Hutt, so part of the time, I drool over good-looking foods on TV. I suspect that half of the people who watch cooking competitions do so for the same reason. We read menus online. We gaze at the pictures in cookbooks. We want food porn, not a bunch of pretentious wankers whining and throwing chairs at the wall in the Glad Wrap Seething Room.

Super trouper!
It's official: Bravo's "Make Me a Supermodel" has supplanted "America's Next Top Model" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on the CW) as the reigning modeling competition. Where do I begin? The MMAS models are much hotter and more interesting-looking than the girlies of ANTM. There are men and women on MMAS, so that, in every other photo shoot, everyone's forced to get naked and make out. (What do we need from hot people, if they're not going to get naked and make out for our idle amusement?) Tyson Beckford doesn't cavort around the set like an enormous posing, advice-spewing über-mommy puppet the way Tyra Banks does. The photo shoots are both torturous and plausible on MMAS, unlike the endless p.c. "You're grossed out by meat, but you're fierce!" "You're sick from smoking, but you're fierce!" stupidity of ANTM.

Finally, not only does the winner of MMAS, Holly, seem poised to have an actual career in modeling, but all of the top four finalists seem likely to find work, based on their final go-sees with Esprit and GQ and the rest. Hell, I think BFFs Ben and Ronnie (aka "Bronnie") could have their very own reality show on Bravo, after their smoldering repressed-straight-guy-meets-happy-gay-boy bromance captivated viewers all season long. As soon as Ben dumps his wife (the writing's on the wall with that one, sadly), quits his job as a prison guard, and moves from Nashville to NYC, Ronnie and Ben could be roomies in the big city. Imagine a reality version of "The Odd Couple," with Ronnie bringing home hot men while Ben secretly pines for Ronnie while dating pretty girls whom he finds "boring" and "not Ronnie-like enough." Someone bring me a flask of whiskey, I think I'm on to something!

And so, humankind's devolution begins. Slowly but surely, we'll all go from making tacos and purchasing long-term disability insurance to swinging through the trees, hurling poo at each other's heads. I can't wait!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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Hell's Kitchen I Like To Watch Television Top Chef