This season of Food Network Star, its ninth, was awfully weird (and before we review, please put on your spoiler goggles, if necessary). There was Danushka, a model and private chef whose vocal fry, sarcasm, and general don't-give-a-shit demeanor made her seem like she'd been deliberately cast as a troll; Viet, a chef and restaurant owner who once beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef yet was the fifth eliminated contestant (his arc was sad, maybe because his angle was "the American Dream" but he routinely sabotaged himself when he fell victim to his own nerves); and Lovely, the caterer who reigned over Star Salvation only to get axed as soon as she rejoined the competition. As the show progressed, it seemed clear that there were two front-runners, both with silly names: Nikki Dinki, a food blogger/YouTube chef who was all about eating "meat on the side," and Stacey Poon-Kinney, a survivor of Restaurant Impossible whose culinary POV, as they say on the F ’Net, was "vintage with a modern twist." Nikki's pitch was flawless by Food Network Star standards — unpreachy yet virtuous, healthy yet not diet, accessible to omnivores and vegetarians alike — and Stacey regularly served some of the best dishes this season, while never losing her composure. Nikki was sent home because she didn't know what pilaf was. Stacey, finally taking the note that she couldn't loosen up and seem genuine onscreen, was excused after she told the personal (and depressing) story of her restaurant's debt before Robert Irvine stepped in. It was not fair — that is, if the premise of Food Network Star is that the winner should be a person who can cook well and talk OK at the same time. But in another, more important way, it was fair. Because neither of them were pie style.
We know Grantland — and the rest of the Internet — has been filled to the brim this week with farewells to the late, great James Gandolfini (and justly so!), but the three of us didn't want the week to go by without saying our piece about the beloved actor and the impact he had on television and film. After that we move on to the season finale of Mad Men, share our impressions of the controversial season as a whole, and debate the discreet charm of Ted Chaough. Finally, we flip channels from HBO to AMC to the Food Network, as the career of Paula Deen goes up in a racist grease fire. How much public sympathy does straight-up ignorance buy you, and where does the Food Network find these people, anyway? Plus, at least one Girls In Hoodies Billion-Dollar Idea™ involving Paula Deen and Gwyneth Paltrow. You're welcome, television.
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.
This show spends very little time in the Real Worst World house, and that's likely for the best. I read an interview with Carrie Lee and she said much of the downtime was spent putting makeup and drag on Aadip and Alex. I bet Alex put on women's clothing a lot in college, for the joke, and that he thought it was extremely, overwhelmingly funny every single time. "Hmm, which dress should I put on tonight to make my housemates laugh? Something elegant." But this week's episode begins with Anne and Bobby paying a surprise visit to the contestants' kitchen. Bobby peeks in the fridge, only to find nothing but an overturned apple sauce. He's disappointed with all the takeout menus he sees, which the producers planted. "They should be practicing at home!" Why in the world would they want to do that, Bobby? Reality competition shoots famously take a dozen hours; I imagine they get home exhausted. Also, they are so bad at cooking. Literally some of the worst. Who wants to come home and eat their own garbage after a long, hard day? "All I want is some of my famous burnt chili mole pasta."
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.
In this corner: Guy Fieri, the immensely popular Food Network personality best known for a gauche personal aesthetic and an unabiding devotion to anything fried repeatedly. And in this corner: Pete Wells, the New York Times food critic, now enjoying quite the professional dream week. Wells's review evisceration of Fieri's first New York City restaurant, the aptly named Guy's American Bar & Grill, has blown up beyond all measures of standard food-crit awareness. It's got the city's food scenesters all riled up about their dude Wells doing the Lord's work in calling out Fieri; it's got Guy's Middle American army rising up to decry the eggheads up in New York. And this morning, it even got to the Today show.
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.
When judges eliminated America’s Sick Kid (Aaron Carter) in the first episode, I’ll admit that I was unsure whether or not Rachael Vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off had legs. I was also unsure whether Aaron Carter had legs, because his vests and Jigsaw face make him look like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Are we sure we ever saw him standing on his own two feet without Joey Fatone a few inches away, his arm buried elbow-deep in Aaron’s party? Whoever is doing the Aaron Carter Puppet voice is a little offensive. No one really talks like that. “What about a macaroni salad?”
As someone who watches Top Chef, a number of things have always troubled me about the format. One, almost none of the chefs were in the movie Young Guns. Two, many of them seem to have previous cooking experience, or at the very least to have eaten normal human food through their mouths. Three, not a single person mentoring the chefs ever wears their sunglasses on the back of their heads. Very often, they aren't wearing any sunglasses at all! These things have always nagged at me, but now Food Network's Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off is here to "solve" these problems.
In a move sure to send their nascent stock offering plummeting, AMC has begun a dangerous game of hardball with one of its signature, non-boring shows. According to the L.A. Times, negotiations between the network and Sony Television over the fifth (and planned final) season of Breaking Bad have soured, with AMC reportedly asking for budget cuts and fewer episodes. Sony, no doubt aware of the millions of dollars in grooming costs saved when they shaved Bryan Cranston’s head, have responded by quietly shopping the show to other networks. While the idea of Heisenberg peddling his wares elsewhere come 2012 is far-fetched, we thought it best to imagine some potential landing spots for the series — and subsequent demographic tweaks — just in case.