Friday, July 12, 2013

TV Takes: Food Network Star

It's been a while since I wrote much about food TV (other than oblique references, that is) — which is odd, since it was binge-watching Top Chef that put me on the road to emerging foodiehood in the first place — but earlier this week, a friend at work point this Andy Greenwald piece criticizing Food Network Star, and I just have to respond. (Truth to tell, I think my friend was more interested in the picture of Giada De Laurentiis than the article, but just the same....)

Greenwald makes a few indisputably good points… but it seems to me the going-in baseline for his remorselessly sneering piece is a basic dislike of Food Network in particular and, really, TV in general. Of course it’s artificial: It’s entertainment, and all entertainment is artifice. And of course they craft a POV: Neither Greenwald nor anyone else would actually watch a TV show that was just generically “about food,” without any concept or focus, and it's hardly "Orwellian" to coach would-be TV performers to be, you know, watchable. Even Julia Child had a “culinary POV,” fer criminy’s sake! Food Network Star is, basically, a look into the sausage factory of food TV (aka "a show devoted to celebrating the artifice of television"... artifice; you say that like it's a bad thing...), and some of us actually do want to see how the sausage is made, notwithstanding the old line; Greenwald seems like someone who not only doesn’t want to see the process, but doesn’t much actually like sausage to begin with.

With the notable exception of American Idol, none of the “launch a new star” reality shows has a high success rate: AFAIK, no winners of The Apprentice (the original, noncelebrity version) has gone on to a big career in business; a few America’s Next Top Model winners have gotten some visible work, but not one of them has become a supermodel; only one (that I know of) America’s Got Talent winner has gone on to a big Vegas showroom career; So You Think You Can Dance winners probably get work in movies or on Broadway, and a couple have gone on to careers working with the show itself as choreographers or rehearsal leaders, but none of them has become a star in the more general sense; and to date no Project Runway winner has become the must-have designer for that class of celebrities whose designer’s names people know. And let’s not even mention the similar “next star” competitions on other niche networks like HGTV.

Compared to these shows, FNS actually doesn’t do too badly. Guy Fieri (much as I, personally, can’t stand watching him) is a bona fide star whose fame actually extends beyond the world of food TV; Jeff “The Sandwich King” Mauro’s (Season 7 winner) show just finished its 4th season (on Food Network, not Cooking Channel), and he had a second show as a spinoff last year (no word as of yet whether it’ll be renewed); Aarti Sequeira’s (Season 6 winner) show ran for 3 seasons (also on the mothership); Melissa D’Arabian (Season 5) has been working steadily on Food Network/Cooking Channel and related websites since her win, and published a cookbook last year; and all of these winners (none of whom Greenwald even mentions) make frequent guest appearances on other Food Network shows (e.g., on anthology shows like The Best Thing I Ever Ate/Made, or as judges or celebrity/”all-star” contestants on other competition shows like Iron Chef America or Chopped). In addition, besides Kelsey Nixon (who actually is “young and blonde and chipper,” but who is by no stretch of the imagination so irresistibly adorable that she “would have a show on the Model Train Network if she owned a pair of overalls and such a thing existed”), numerous other nonwinners have had some degree of success within the Food Network family of outlets (e.g., Adam Gertler,  Jeffrey Saad, Tom Pizzica) or parlayed their “culinary POV” into non-FN success (e.g., Debbie Lee, who turned her Korean soul food concept into a successful LA food truck). So while FNS may not have created many real stars, it has given no small number of people at least a shot at making a living in their chosen field… which is as much as most of its peer shows can claim.

BTW, the suggestion, in re Kelsey Nixon, that Food Network wants bland, pretty, generic TV star types is belied by the fact that Nixon only finished fourth in her season, which was won by a black man from New Jersey, who was in turn succeeded by a short, round, dark (albeit also “chipper”) Mumbai-born/Dubai-raised woman (Aarti Sequeira) as the next winner. Last season’s winner, Justin Warner, was a skinny, geeky-looking kid who more resembles Bill Nye the Science Guy than he does Mr. TV Star™ from Central Casting. Even normal-white-guy winners like Jeff Mauro (and Guy Fieri himself) often aren’t typical “pretty” TV types, and one of FN’s biggest stars – Alton Brown – is a balding, middle-aged food geek in a bowtie. And don’t even get me started about Anne Burrell, who looks like a female defensive tackle and has hair that suggests she walks around with a Tesla coil in her pocket. Beautiful people like Giada and (so I’m told by my female friends) Bobby Flay notwithstanding, FN really can’t fairly be accused of being overly looks conscious.

All that said, I actually have been disappointed with the current season: I liked the changes they made to the show’s format for last season, but they’ve fiddled with the format again for this season, mostly to the show’s detriment (fewer contestants, no mentors' teams, not enough Bob and Susie, etc.). And the cast of competitors has (so far) been disappointing: The (apparent) best cooks (e.g., Viet Pham) have either boring concepts or no screen presence, while the ones with the most interesting personalities and concepts (e.g., Rodney "Pie Man" Henry) consistently fail to impress the judges with their food. And many of them are recycled from previous appearances on FN (and/or other reality TV), as pointed out in Maggie Furlong’s HuffPo piece, which I think is actually a more thoughtful critique than Greenwald’s. Still, I’m hoping that this is just a down season (or half-season: Often in the past, things have looked bleak, and then a few competitors have hit their stride in the later episodes), rather than a sign that the concept is played out… because overall I’ve really enjoyed the show up to this point in its history.

(Note that the second half of Greenwald's column, about Paula Deen, is essentially a separate piece, and one I'm not inclined to comment about, having never been a Deen fan even before the current controversy.)

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