Monday, July 10, 2006

Termite Television: Hell's Kitchen

If there is a Rosetta Stone to my taste, Hell's Kitchen might be it. I've often joked to friends that if I could create a show, it would look a lot like Hell's Kitchen and, really, no other show I know epitomizes the so-bad-it's-good aesthetic that I relish in crummy old science-fiction pictures and things starring crazy dudes playing football in tuxedos. Melodramatic, shrill, and calculated for maximum drama, Hell's Kitchen is either the smartest dumb show or the dumbest smart show ever made. I can't decide; I change my mind three or four times per episode.

Hell's Kitchen — or just "The Kitchen" for people in the know, as in "Did you guys catch "The Kitchen" last night? — is a reality show in the mold of The Apprentice: an eccentric success teaches his trade to a group of eager young whipper snappers with a fabulous reward awaiting the winner. In this case the trade is cooking (obviously) and the eccentric success is British chef Gordon Ramsay; the reward a million dollar restaurant in a new Las Vegas resort. Ramsay has written books like "Passion for Flavour" and "Passion for Seafood" but his greatest passion is for publicly humiliating people; he is, possibly, the world's worst boss (Meryl Streep's in "The Devil Wears Prada" seems downright compassionate in comparison). Ramsay's breakthrough show in England, where the chef would help revitalize restaurants in need of his aid, was called "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares." The American version removes most of the benevolence and imagines what Ramsay's own nightmares might be like.

Generally, these types of reality shows select contestants who are at least mildly qualified for the position at the end; though some might be abrasive, or obnoxious, or egotistical, you can at least rationalize why even the worst contestant managed to make their way on the show. Not so on Hell's Kitchen, where the participants appear selected not for their culinary ability or their passion for fine cuisine but rather for their inherent ability to annoy the shit out of Ramsay. For instance, this year's cast included Larry the fishmonger, who was forced out of the competition due to a physical breakdown caused by stress (inexplicably, his panic attack came not after one of Ramsay's verbal beatdowns, but after an evening hottubbing with the lovely ladies of "The Kitchen"), and a young man named Giacomo, who was allegedly a pizza maker, but ultimately found his way out of Hell's Kitchen when it was revealed that he did not even know how to turn on an oven (an oven being a rather crucial element of the pizza making, as well as most cooking enterprises).

Generally, these type of shows operate under a rigorously observed set of rules; Hell's Kitchen is completely subjective. At any point Ramsay can do whatever he wants and he very often does, like an angry deity smiting subjects who have failed to please him. During elimination, Ramsay will often request the least sucky contestant to offer up two teammates to go on the chopping block (this has to be the least rewarding reward in reality show history, since the person who doesn't get eliminated now wants to stab you in the back, which is dangerous on a show with this many meat cleavers lying about) but if the contestant he really wants to kick off isn't among the two, he will simply add him to the bunch and then eliminate him. Each episode is structured around a climactic meal service (which almost always ends in screaming and failure) and a challenge around the :30 mark, which is, without fail, judged however Ramsay sees fit. A recent episode required the players to cut steaks to the proper size and weight for serving. Ramsay judged, not with a mold or a scale, but with his eye and his hands, dismissing the steaks he didn't like with lines like, "I wouldn't serve that to a dog!"

You might wonder why I watch a show in which the contestants are clearly unqualified and the rules are constantly in flux. This is because Hell's Kitchen is not about the reward, in the way that The Apprentice is about getting rich working for Donald Trump. Hell's Kitchen is about watching stupid people get yelled at by the man with the shortest fuse in the history of civilzation. Though I would rather get deported than appear on the show myself, something about Ramsay belittling their poor lost souls gives me an admittedly sadistic pleasure. "GET BACK ON YOUR STATION, YOU DONKEY!" is something I expect to hear most episodes. "MOVE YOUR ASS FAT BOY!" is music to my ears. The creators do a brilliant job of letting us see these mistakes coming, of capturing that deer-in-the-headlights look when a contestant realizes they've screwed up and they are due for a tongue lashing (such as when one overweight contestant perspired so profusely in the kitchen that he began to sweat into the food...yummy). And think about it: even if you win Hell's Kitchen, what are you really winning? The chance to work 40 hours a week for Gordon Ramsay? To get belittled and insulted and made to feel like a maggot every day of your adult life, without the benefit of being on television while it's happening? Wow, what a fabulous prize. I think I'll take what's behind the curtain Monty.

A delightfully grumpy host coupled with some delightfully inept contestants would be enough to make a good show, but the show's heart stopping editing (cutting to commercials mid-word when it suits the drama!) and hilariously clumsy rituals (is it really necessary to impale the exiled chef's jacket on a meat hook AND incinerate their picture? Wouldn't one suffice to indicate their dismissal?) take it over the top. Hell's Kitchen is low-brow entertainment of the very highest order. Ramsay's cuisine shall always reign supreme (you donkey).

Hell's Kitchen airs Mondays at 9 PM on FOX.



Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Matthew, you've touched me.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

I try my best Michael. Did you see this week's episode? One of the best; Rachel's desperation attempt to hide her overcooked meat by rubbing sauce into it couldn't fool Chef Gordon Ramsay -- doesn't she know, Ramsay can tell how cooked meat is just by touching it?!? Brilliant.

2:32 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

I was SO happy to see Rachel booted. And yes, I agree, it really was one of the best episodes yet... which is saying a lot. I say yet, because next week there's supposed to be a Hell's Kitchen 1st AND we'll "never believe who goes home" -- Keith? Sarah? Is it Monday yet?

Also, I love his increasingly excessive use of the name "donkey" for his chefs.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

They always say we'll never guess who'll be booted off. But we know. Oh, we know.

BTW -- what about that suggestion of a lesbionic relationship between Heather and Rachel? I have to say that Heather is, by far, the most fascinating character on the show, or, at least, the one most clearly in need of psychiatric counseling. She's desperate to please Chef Ramsay, and constantly fails and constantly tries to make up for her mistakes in ways that sabotage her team (Like how she screwed up her appetizers then got in Garrett's way and practically took over his station to the detriment of both of them). Then she says that she failed and that any of the blue team deserves to go home tonight while her two male teammates look on with pure, unbridled hatred. She was also the one who burned herself terribly and continued barking orders to her teammakes while her flesh smoldered.

God I love this show.

4:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home