Sunday, August 13, 2017

Thoughts on Food Network Star

I quit watching reality television right at the beginning of the craze.  I think, with the homosexually-mandatory requirement of My Life on the D-List, I haven't watched a reality TV show religiously since Fantasia Barrino was a household name.  I guess, for me, it was always a bit of a disappointment.  The singing competitions felt pretty repetitive, and really there was diminishing returns past the time they got their first validation (the only part of The Voice I like is the part where they are auditioning), and other shows were vapid and appalling.

I guess my main objection to the format is I don't like the concept of drama when it's manufactured on a show.  I don't like it, quite frankly, when it's in a scripted situation-at least the kind of drama that is so necessary on a reality or competition-based show.  I usually fast-forward when there are cringe-worthy levels of awkward on an episode of, say, Modern Family or Veep.  I find it embarrassing and awful for the people involved.  I love dramatic television but not when it feels forced or when it's constantly making something more complicated than it should be.

As a result, I don't watch shows ranging from Drag Race to Keeping Up with the Kardashians to The Bachelor even while they have been an essential part of the online zeitgeist over the past decade.  Every time I've watched (I've seen at least parts of all of those shows) I get bored and think that everything other than the actual competition is, well, pointless.  But about two months ago I was bored on a Sunday (the SVU marathon had entered the post-Stabler era and I was having none of it), and I decided to catch an episode of Food Network Star.  Lo-and-behold, I was hooked, and wanted to share some of the things I found after a long sabbatical from reality TV.

Jason Smith
1. It Still Feels Pretty Manufactured

The show itself, for those unfamiliar, is a cooking competition where the ultimate prize is going to be getting your own Food Network series.  It's a really cool idea for a show, and a smart one for Food Network-it gets to test the waters through social media as to whom the audience is responding toward, and at the end they get the best-of-the-best, someone who has already proven himself or herself (though on FNS, very much himself as the show is stunningly lacking in diversity).  Guy Fieri, one of the channel's most successful and ubiquitous presences, came out of the show, so it can actually result in a major personality on the channel.

However, it still feels wholly manufactured.  It's easy to tell, for example, who is going home each week based on the way the show is cut.  Knowing what are clearly the hot buttons for hosts Bobby Flay and Giada de Laurentiis make it relatively easy to figure out what will go wrong, and the foreshadowing in talking head soundbytes mean that, say, a super hot chili or undercooked meatballs being someone's undoing is spelled out in bright red letters.

Additionally, the show seems pretty biased as well, and kind of boring in that it's easy to tell who was going to be in the Final 3 for weeks now.  Despite, say, Matthew or Amy perhaps adding something that would be lacking for the network (more on that later), I've known for weeks that Jason, Cory, and Rusty would be in the finals, and unless something staggering happens tonight, Jason will surely take the crown (which is appropriate, as he's by-far the best of those remaining, though Cory I think would be an interesting option if he were to get some more charisma as his dishes are usually the most interesting).  That predictability haunts most shows, and doesn't seem to have gotten better as reality television has gone from a cottage industry to a fully-fledged cornerstone of television.

Matthew Grunwald
2. The Best Part is Getting to Know the Chefs

The coolest part of the show, genuinely, is getting to know the chefs and seeing what they end up doing.  I will admit that Matthew was my favorite of the bunch, and not just because I have a crush on him (but seriously-look at how cute he is!).  I like Cory's dishes better sometimes, and I think Amy is really fun (and it's hard to dislike Jason even though he's almost annoyingly perfect and an unbeatable frontrunner), but Matthew sticks out to me because he's unique.  Yes, he's occasionally a bit abrasive, but honestly he's a breath of fresh air and his dishes feel less stuffy and fresher than some of the other ideas that are coming up.

However, the coolest part of this show is getting to see the way that chefs really think and work and react.  The quickness and encyclopedic aspect of some of these people when they are given, say, okra or beets and expected to turn them into a party or dessert is intense.  I am very much a Food Network fan, but a fan "in the morning"-I don't watch Chopped, I watch Ree Drummond or Ina Garten or Giada make themed dishes in their beautiful kitchens and then attempt to recreate them in my own.  The cooking, therefore, is the best part of this and by-and-large the show lets the chefs pick cool-themed dishes that reflect their personalities, while still keeping them on task (much like a morning show on the channel).  I have to say that there were several dishes and ideas that I'm planning on incorporating into my kitchen in the near future.  Through this, I also get to know the chefs and start to establish that personal connection that I have had with people like de Laurentiis, whom I have been inviting to cook in my apartment via the TV for a decade now, and who has taught me so many things in the kitchen that she feels like an old friend.

Giada de Laurentiis and Booby Flay
3. It's a Weird Study in Corporate Culture

Perhaps the most meta and fascinating thing about the show, however, isn't that we're watching these chefs try to pursue their dreams-it's getting to know the judges' opinions and by-proxy the Food Network itself.  While the show has produced one major, indisputable juggernaut (Guy Fieri), by-and-large the rest of the winners haven't been nearly as successful on the channel, though of course some (like Jeff Mauro) do have their own programs.  But you see in whom they are choosing (because you can't tell me that Flay and de Laurentiis aren't in part getting orders from corporate here) what the network is looking for right now.

It can't be a coincidence, after all, that our three top chefs this year are white-southern males on the channel.  Whether it's because they never quite replaced Paula Deen's fanbase or because they see more and more people wanting southern elements in their dishes, Food Network clearly wants a southern male chef, perhaps one who can try and take some of the heat off of Fieri, who has come under fire in recent years but is too popular on the channel to cast off.  It's also clear that they want a specific type of chef and a specific type of show; the chefs are docked points for not relating the dish to themselves or for not "telling a story" with their food as is the formula for pretty much every single direct-to-camera cooking series on the show (similar to those that made both Flay and de Laurentiis) insanely wealthy and popular.

In doing this, though, they make the cardinal mistake of not looking forward or outside-of-the-box when it comes to a business model.  Other channels, specifically online video-hosting sites like YouTube have started to create Millennial-endorsed celebrity chefs of their own.  People like Hannah Hart (who is getting her own travel-style series on the network starting tomorrow) and Rosanno Pansino have become major young talents in the celebrity food world, complete with their own cookbooks, but have done so less by relating to what they want to bring home for their kids, and more about mixing in acting/entertainment/activism into what they're doing.  Hart regularly drinks (or acts drunk-it's sometimes hard to tell) in her videos, but instead of just talking about herself, she instead relates her dish to social issues like safe sex or gender equality and regularly does improvisational comedy while cooking.  Pansino, who has nearly 9 million followers on YouTube, creates cute pastry-decorating while being intensely optimistic and cheerful, and frequently creating party ideas through Star Wars and Game of Thrones-themed dishes that millennials can incorporate into the "experience, not an object" theme that has made travel such a vital part of our Instagrams.

All of this is to say that Food Network doesn't go outside the box here, instead picking someone who would be more comfortable co-hosting with Alton Brown than perhaps creating a new approach to the network.  People like Amy Pottinger, who is hilarious and frequently self-deprecating (the funniest of the group), gets ignored because she's not as polished, but probably would be a huge hit on YouTube and I suspect would get a pretty devoted following quite quickly.  Matthew Grunwald may be pushier than the rest of the contestants, but he has an undeniable energy and ease with social media that, again, I think his "beach party" style recipes might make for an atypical, but hit show on the channel. This is all to say-it feels more like the show is trying to feed into the Food Network brand than pick the most likely actual "star" of the series.  That mentality works in the short run but you might be denying a talent a chance to grow.  Jason Smith or Rusty Hamlin are interchangeable with a dozen other personalities on the channel in a way Grunwald or Pottinger are not, and it's worth noting that de Laurentiis, one of the channel's biggest successes, got panned when she first started on the channel.

Those are my three main thoughts on the show-overall I like it and will probably come back again, though I doubt this is an opening of the floodgates for reality TV.  Share in the comments your thoughts on the series, Food Network in general, and what reality TV you love most!

No comments: