It used to be that if I wanted to spend two or three hours obliterating my free time, I watched Law & Order. Now I watch Food Network's Chopped. I'm not sure what changed. I think it's more difficult for me to stop myself from watching another Chopped when I'm on a binge. With Law & Order, a new episode means a new case and new disposable characters, and as each hour begins there are a few panicky moments where I am wondering who everyone is and how they know each other, and these moments give me an out to change the channel. There's nothing like that on Chopped. In fact, the rhythm of the show means that I am always slightly angry that the episode is ending with — and that the winner is being decided by — a dessert cook-off. Desserts are for nerds, and it is the Achilles heel of the Chopped format. For that reason, at the end of an episode I always want to cleanse my palate by starting a new episode and watching them cook appetizers, a comfortingly savory and relatable course. And the next thing I know, I'm watching a whole new episode.
The fourth season of Worst Cooks in America was only seven episodes long, but it felt much longer. Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-off, at six episodes, is a bite-size mushroom quiche at a cocktail party compared to this show, which feels like you're being made at gunpoint to try to finish every dish on the Cheesecake Factory's 30-page menu. And the person forcing you to do it puts the barrel of the gun in your mouth, which is frightening but also makes it extremely difficult to chew, so you keep hitting your teeth on the metal of the gun and you kind of have to just gum the food into mush with your left molars and sometimes food falls out of your mouth, because you can't close your lips, but the person doesn't let you off the hook and you also have to eat the food that falls. Last night's finale was the food that falls.
With only four contestants left, Worst Cooks in America is a different show. Last week the judges eliminated Carla and Michael, cooks with two of the clearest gimmicks: Wanna-Lay-Bobby-Flay and Bow-Tie-Accounting-Dork. With their dismissal, all that's left is to watch the most capable cooks compete, though that distinction is profoundly relative. On other cooking reality shows, there is a drama inherent to having a whole pickup truck full of contestants running around your kitchen: Some people don't get along, some people get along too well, a few have no business competing but look interesting on television while doing it. Then, as the field narrows, that particular drama flakes away and is replaced by the drama of watching only the most skilled cooks competing. These are people at the top of their field crafting works of art. That is not the case here. Now that the ballerina and the frat guy and the chiropractor with the sex dungeon are gone, all that's left is to watch four miserable home cooks struggle and get things wrong. I expected to be let down. Instead, the increased screen time exploded these remaining four contestants from sound bites and punchlines into real people, people with families and human struggles who want to be better providers, and I also cried twice. I'm an old softie.
Sunday was the fifth episode of the season, and I no longer feel like I'm watching bad cooks become better at cooking. I am now watching bad cooks become better at being on television. However much Anne and Bobby are coaching the contestants on-screen pales in comparison to how much the producers are coaching them off-screen. Everybody's sound bite game is getting tight. Maybe these final six contestants made it this far because they're strong in all aspects of the competition, but I was overwhelmed last night by the way every sentence uttered in the confessional sounded like it came out of a writers' room. These sentences aren't coming out of a great writers' room, but it's probably a room with walls and a door that people with computers and college degrees sit inside.
The contestants discover this week's clue in the kitchen of their house: It's a tiny grocery basket filled with fruit and vegetables. The note reads, "Time to make a good ex-sample out of you." Sue bravely ventures a guess. "I think we're going to do some shopping." You can't slip anything past these guys. In order to grocery shop, they put on matching aprons and vests. As everyone knows, this is how you shop. Amateurs will often put the apron on over your shopping vest, but that's a mistake. Rasheeda is dreading the trip to Stew Leonard's, a New York grocery store. She says, "I hate grocery stores, because there's so much food and I can't cook any of it." I understand what Rasheeda is saying; I hate Pep Boys because there are too many tires and I can't eat any of them. Rasheeda would prefer a smaller grocery store, with only some food, if that food was already cooked. I think she wants a restaurant.
This show is brutal. Last week we saw Dr. Bob and Big Mike sent home, and if those two barrels of charisma can't cut it, who can? The two of them were clearly talented: Mike could probably walk onto any indoor football team in Canada, and Bob's background in chiropractology gifted him with hands strong enough to crack bone and precise enough to tie unbreakable rope knots. Don't even bother trying to slip those knots; it only makes them tighter. Yet Anne and Bobby unceremoniously took back Mike and Bob's aprons and left them with nothing. I can only imagine how nervous their former teammates are to continue.
After my recap of the premiere went up last week, people left comments. That's how these things work. But it was not just "civilian" people leaving comments; there were also comments from this season's contestants. If I was on a cable reality show, I'd definitely mix it up on Grantland. Aadip thanked me for the shout-out; he seems like a savvy guy, and he gets how to play along. Dr. Bob, who presumably gets a wireless signal in his Panic Room, was confused by how I described his TV persona. That makes sense, because very little of what I write has anything to do with reality. If everything I wrote was based on facts, this would be a weekly series in which I describe ingredients and how ovens are working, and I am getting bored just thinking about it. Dr. Bob wrote, "Sorry for your misunderstanding me since we have never met, call anytime for clarification or facts - Dr.Bob." Dr. Bob is right. I am a bad journalist, and I did not once call him to check any of my "facts." But is Dr. Bob saying that we should meet up? That seems like a very Dr. Bob move. Never follow Dr. Bob to a second location.
A Sunday night without a soul-extinguishing cooking show didn't quite feel right after the trauma of Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, so Mark Lisanti here was kind enough to let me keep this sad-party rolling with Worst Cooks in America. He is a classic enabler. In choosing to watch this show I feel a bit like an addict, in that I am making decision after decision that disappoints and scares my loved ones, and also the sort of people I am hanging around with look like Anne Burrell. I have no idea if Chef Anne Burrell has ever done drugs, and I am not implying she has; I am just saying she looks like the sort of person who can't get lots of regular jobs because they have strict "Have you ever taken ketamine at a funeral?" policies.
The sixth episode of Rachael Vs Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off was also its last. Perhaps Food Network is modeling this season after the British model of short "series," and that makes sense considering the show's intense commitment to quality. But it's a bad omen that the season finale begins with lie after lie. Guy says that he and Rachael knew they were in for some "amazing cooking" this season and Dean replies, "There are some really talented people here." Neither are true, liars. You might as well call this show House of Lies. Oh, that's already a show? What is it about? Really? Why would anyone want to watch that? Oh, they don't. Anyway, OK, then how about House of Cards? No, I said House of Carns, which is maybe a nickname for Carnie Wilson, which is already a nickname for Carnthony Wilson.
I've not had time to check with the Nielsen people, but I can only imagine that the penultimate episode of Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off on Sunday night won its time slot handily, across all demographics. For some reason, and I can't think of what that reason might be, Food Network moved it to 10 p.m. from its regularly scheduled time slot of 9 p.m. Was there something else going on at 9? Maybe something that 108 million people were watching instead? If there was, it was probably done by 9:59 and that's why 10 o'clock made perfect sense. We all watched Rachael vs. Guy live, and it felt good to know that I was part of a global community all tuning in at the same time to see what Carnie Wilson's face looked like.
I did not watch last night's new episode of Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off live, but while my DVR was recording it, someone tweeted at me saying that I'd have "a field day with this episode." Having now caught up on Episode 4, I imagine this person was trying to say that the whole hour was so filled to the brim with sopping-wet garbage that I would have an easy, playful time tearing it apart. This person misunderstands my relationship to trash, and also my relationship to field day. As a kid, I was very indoors-y. I liked books and The Simpsons and discovering myself on AOL, not color wars and loud kids getting competitive. At my school, we also had to run a mile on field day. Also, I always forgot it was field day and accidentally wore, like, corduroys, so the run was doubly painful. Supposedly it built character, but it was torture. Watching this show doesn't even build character. It does give me cramps, though, and I absolutely spend the last third of it out of breath.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, friends and family. Today President Obama renewed his oath of office and began another four years in the White House, and here I am writing so many words about the second "term" (season) of Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, widely considered the President of quality television. This is exactly the future Dr. King was dreaming about. Let's take today to remember his most enduring legacy, a world where Carnie Wilson and Hines Ward could work together at a theme diner serving free sandwiches to bused-in tourists.
Cornelia has been eliminated, and I hope that she still has Sylvester Stallone's phone number; he is famously good at comforting the defeated with his silver tongue. A lot of people call his words "mouth poems" because they are so beautiful and also come out of his mouth. Conveniently, the loss of one of Team Guy leaves the two teams even at three members apiece. This happened last season as well, and it's a little hard to buy that the diners' votes at the end of each challenge truly add up the way they do. These challenges are not built to handle a team of four versus a team of two, and I for one would like to see some accountability. What we need on set is one of those PricewaterhouseCoopers guys from the Oscars, with a briefcase in his hand. He is very trustworthy, and hopefully we could trust him to open up his briefcase and take a hammer out and then destroy all the camera equipment on set.
Last night's Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off faced a lot of stiff competition for our viewing attention. What luck did this senior project of a TV show have against the likes of the Golden Globes, new episodes of Downton Abbey and The Good Wife, and the premieres of Girls, Enlightened, and Californication? Also, what luck did it have against the Weather Channel, recorded episodes of C-SPAN'S BookTV, or that Animal Planet show where they just tell you the ways different breeds of dogs are nice? In general, when I look across the faces of the remaining six contestants — Kathy Najimy, Carnie Wilson, Hines Ward, Dean McDermott, Cornelia Guest, Johnny Weird, and Chilli — "luck" is not a word that springs to mind at all. I see an explicit absence of it. Actually, maybe their faces do make me think of HBO's Luck, and how it was probably a bad idea to make a show with all those old, washed-up horses, and how merciful it was they all got shot.
Did anybody have a good 2012? I did not. I have polled a lot of people, or at least some people, and everyone I talked to agrees that 2012 belongs in the garbage bucket. My New Year's resolution is to buy a garbage bucket. Even Obama, who in 2012 was a doctor office's magazine's Person of the Year and got himself re-elected most powerful person in the world, still has to go and be President for another four years, and frankly that seems miserable. He does not seem to be enjoying it one bit. The other person who maybe had an OK 2012 was that one gymnast girl, not the one who made a face, but the one who won more stuff. I've already forgotten her name, and the Olympics were not that long ago, so how great could her year have been?
I'm looking back on the year because I realized a few weeks ago that my 2012 started off with watching and writing about Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off for this very website, and I sort of blame that show for setting the tone for my year. If you did not watch it, I will recap for you: It was bad, and lots of people who were on it made me sad. Aaron Carter asked, "What about a macaroni salad?" and then tried to intuit ranch dressing via four of his five senses. Coolio saw his dreams of culinary stardom dashed on the rocks, and Lou Diamond Phillips helped his charity. The end. At the time, no one would have dreamed of referring to those six episodes, aired clumsily over five weeks, as "Season 1." That would unthinkably imply more seasons, in a way that a "witty" drunk television character might introduce someone as his "first wife" and everyone on the show (but not at home) would have a laugh about it.
There are a lot of people who look like Guy Fieri — for instance, this season's Food Network Star contestant Michelle, Anne Burrell, and Violent J after he washes his face — but Guy Fieri is a unique being. He inspires culinary and personal hatred for a number of reasons, including wearing sunglasses on the folds of his neck fat and accessorizing with flame decals. He yells, and sometimes yells while he eats. Despite this, he rose to fame after winning Season 2 of The Next Food Network Star, a show that I find uncomfortably fascinating because it compels its contestants to cook meatballs and fry garnishes within impossible time limits while telling (often fabricated) stories about their mothers, hometowns, or deceased and beloved relatives. There is a lot of perspiring, sometimes onto the plate. The losers are corralled into a boardroom, forced to watch tapes of themselves sputtering and holding leaky portobello mushroom caps, and are criticized by Food Network producers for failing to be genuine, or for lacking a distinct "P.O.V.," or for confusing the words “decomposed” and “deconstructed.” Last week, Alton Brown pinched his nasal bridge and tried to save a contestant on his team (whose "P.O.V." was health food, after having lost over a hundred pounds) by sharing a distinctly Alton Brown–like serving of profundity on what it is like to be overweight — one has to sell oneself because one feels so unattractive, so clumsy. It was sort of moving: So, Alton was once fat. The contestant cried, and then was eliminated. Nobody tasted his food.
With little fanfare or notice, the Food Network decided to wrap up Rachael Vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off in five weeks instead of six. This past Sunday they aired the final two episodes back-to-back. Perhaps they worried the finale would get much higher ratings than the Super Bowl, and Guy Fieri didn’t want to be responsible for destroying the game he loves. “I’m a major pigskin-head, bro. I can’t do that to the Big Game. Unrelated: I’m allegedly uncomfortable around gay people.” If the Food Network were worried about putting the finale against the Super Bowl, why’d they premiere the show six weeks before? Was there a time where they thought it might actually compete with it? None of these things check out.