David Simon, as you probably could have guessed, does not tweet. What he does do, though, is write extensive, fiery responses to other people's tweets — specifically, in this case, the tweets of Andy Cohen and Simon's pal Anthony Bourdain, who argued on Twitter about the ethics of taking money from the state of Louisiana to shoot TV in New Orleans. As Simon writes on his site, in a blog post called "Why I don’t tweet. Example #47”: "I can’t be entirely indifferent to the shitty-ass, reach-around snark of some fellow [That'd be Cohen!] who rushes to throw under the bus people about whom he has no knowledge whatsoever — and does so to gain a dishonest point in a fucking tweet war." And then Simon really goes in.
But let's back up. This started with the news that Top Chef will be filming its upcoming 11th season in New Orleans. Hey, fantastic, right? Everyone loves New Orleans? Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Turns out, the reason Top Chef is heading to the N.O. is, at least in part, thanks to a $200,000 payout from the BP oil spill settlement fund to Bravo, Top Chef’s channel. Well, what in the hell?
Long-term success can buy you many things — often quite literally. But it can also make you bored and sloppy in all the wrong ways. You start making changes just for the sake of making them. You attempt to fix things that are a long way from broken. This is how you end up with New Coke or Rebirth or Michael Jordan, strikeout machine. It's how you end up with a finale like Top Chef did last night.
How else to explain the near-disastrous decision-making on display? Just a week after I praised the veteran food competition for always considering contestants "solely on the strength of their cooking," the producers chucked their winning format in the garbage like so many burnt pig ears. In its place we were served something both unwanted and unexpected: an overheated, painfully dulled version of Iron Chef. Instead of excitement, it was hard not to feel sorry for Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson, the two totally deserving, totally shellshocked finalists, as they were pitted against each other in a garish kumite that treated both their talents and the audience's comprehension the way a Vitamix treats an overripe tomato. Instead of cooking the "meal of their lives," the two gifted chefs were forced to cook as if their lives depended on it, racing breathlessly to push out 68 plates (!) of each course, and then stand, sweating like salted eggplants, while it was judged on a nuance-free up and down vote, separated by time and context from what came before or after. It was loud and it was dumb. Kristen won, but we all lost.
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Bravo's reality TV empire is primarily a New York–Los Angeles operation, preferring to stay in the parts of the country where we stockpile attention-starved interior decorators and housewives who are ready to drop everything and shoot a season of pomtini-fueled bickering at a moment's notice. But in recent years, a pattern has started to emerge — every year, Andy Cohen & Co. will set up shop in a second- or third-tier metropolitan area and launch a couple of shows — usually a season of Top Chef and a non-competitive (except for precious camera time) docu-drama. The benefits of this strategy, like any good foreign-exchange program, are mutual: Urbanites get a chance to see what life is like in "the rest of the country," and the lucky residents of the spotlighted city get a chance to show coastal elites that they have a Neiman Marcus and an Asian-fusion tapas bar, too.
This programming strategy recently hit home when Bravo announced that it would be rolling out its newest era in Seattle — a city I partially grew up in and have spent a good amount of time in. Top Chef: Seattle and LOLwork (a workplace reality "comedy" about the I Can Has Cheezburger empire) both premiere tonight, and reality TV is about to get its first long look at the Emerald City since The Real World ran off in 1998, leaving a barrage of Red Delicious apples and Rainier beer bottles from disgruntled locals in its wake. Let's see how Seattle stacks up against former Bravo strongholds.
The Top Chef Masters finale happened, and here is my gripe: As with this season of MasterChef, the finalists were made up of one person who had been slaying it all competition (in the case of MC this was Christine, who was, incidentally, blind) and one culinarian who had been bobbing along in a warm pool of the consommé of mediocrity for the whole season before getting things in gear a few episodes before the finale (MC’s Josh frequently found himself in the bottom three, and was even eliminated once before being invited back into the game). In the final episode, these slackers bust out with menus completely unlike any of the wallflower gnocchi and unspectacular over-easy eggs they’ve been handing out for weeks, parading out a pea flan and saying, “Hey, look, I’ve always been Mr. Pea Flan!” You can’t save the goods for the finale. Saving the goods for the finale and hoping to win goes completely against the nature of these competitions: Before you were Mr. Pea Flan, you were Mr. Who’s That, and nobody wants Mr. Who’s That to win a very important Bravo-emblazoned chef’s jacket worth $500 million. This is why I was very concerned to see Kerry Heffernan against my boy Chris Cosentino in the finale of TCM.
Last week, the remaining chefs were subjected to the “foodie flash mob” picnic Dîner en Blanc and its attendant mimes and critics. Cosentino’s terrine scored him the win, while Patricia’s high-concept beefy jam–and–flatbread combo got her sent home. And then there were three: Lorena, Cosentino, and Kerry.
As soon as the triumvirate walks into the kitchen and sees the partitions, psychic Cosentino knows the score. Yes, it’s “cooking through the wall” time, a communication-testing Quickfire during which the chefs must instruct a mystery teammate on the other side of the partition on how to make a dish that they simultaneously cook themselves. Kerry chimes in that it pays to be nice in this one, and we are treated to a flashback to Season 3 to see Naomi Pomeroy tearing her mystery partner a new one as she screams for him to taste the mushrooms, TASTE THE MUSHROOMS, and then discovers that her partner was her dad. After 20 minutes, the teams will be judged on how well their dishes resemble one another and the overall quality of the result. This time, the mystery teammates are the judges, Reichl, Oseland, and Lam. I would both love and hate to be a mystery teammate on this challenge — I’ve never seen any of these judges cook, and it’s probably tough to be a critic put to the test against the final three Top Chef Masters. I’d be so afraid to show my ignorance after judging these people all season. I’d probably throw up into my demi-glace.
There are four chefs left in the Top Chef Masters competition, and none of them are Takashi. He was knocked out last week by Patricia Yeo; I remind you of this because it was so painful that I assume you drank yourself into a coma that night in pursuit of a blissful innocence that I just destroyed. It’s true. He’s gone. As if in tribute, the king of condiments, Thousand Island, was also absent from the shelves of all of the grocery stores within a two-mile radius of my house, and by the time I had my Reuben sandwich sitting in front of me as I prepared to eat like a hog while I watched other people gobbling fancy food, I didn’t even want it anymore. I felt like this and I didn’t feel like watching another ax fall in the kitchen of broken dreams. But I did. So let’s do this thing.
Last week's episode of Top Chef Masters marked the departure of Art Smith and a farewell to his many variations on biscuits and dressing. It also was the point at which the enamel started to crack on the Le Creuset casserole of inter-chef relationships: Kerry and Patricia sparred during service and Art and Lorena's credentials were called into question when the chefs were split up for their ceremonial van rides to the grocery store. With only five chefs left in the competition (Chris, Lorena, Takashi, Kerry, and Patricia), we have reached the ego trip stage. Everyone is tired and cranky and, according to Patricia, aware of who’s on top and who's — well, Lorena.
I have nothing to complain about this week: Last night’s Top Chef Masters was a good one. There was arguing, passive-aggression, a couple of great guest judges, and a damn near impossible elimination challenge (throwing together a Thai restaurant in like 10 minutes). Also: Dita von Teese chipping away at ol’ Stonewall with observations regarding how sea creatures just sliiiiiiide right down her throat. Nice.
To punish me for rooting for Chris Cosentino last week, the gods sent the gentle citizens of Yorba Linda 30 earthquakes over the course of 24 hours. I’m sorry, Yorba Linda. I did that. So let me begin by saying that Chris Cosentino was really tacky this week and I am considering shifting my allegiance to Takashi Yagihashi. He seems like a nice guy. WILL THIS SUFFICE, GODS? I have a nice glass teapot on a narrow shelf and my dog hates aftershocks.
There is something sort of melancholy about Top Chef Masters. Maybe it’s because Curtis Stone axes the contestants so casually in comparison to Padma Lakshmi’s Pietà-like “Pack your knives and go,” or maybe it’s just because there are more seasoned veterans with more on the line than in rookie TC seasons. Failing to impress people with your cooking can feel really rough. Sometimes it seems as though “Streets of Philadelphia” is playing when the herring doesn’t cut the mustard, there are children seated at televised tables spitting into napkins, and some popular restaurant somewhere loses two more Sunday reservations. And everybody’s playing for charity, instead of being driven by their own greedy funtimes. And it’s set in Las Vegas. Who can eat at a time like this?
As our own Andy Greenwald noted earlier today, fans of Important Television didn't have too much to whine about this morning after the 2012 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced — the lists were surprisingly well-balanced, with popular favorites like Modern Family right up there with critical darlings Girls and Louie, and realistically, that's probably about how things should be, right? (I'm assuming all Community fans have stopped reading by now.) So, huh. This is weird. Is there anything left to get irrationally angry about?
Yes, yes there is! Here are your 2012 Outstanding Reality-Competition Program nominations:
Watching the Top Chef: Texas season finale was basically as boring as watching the Super Bowl because the outcome and legacy of the season had already been determined based on the portrayal of the “regular season.” We already knew who had won over the hearts of the fans, judges, and fellow chefs. Viewers had already determined whose restaurant they are most likely to attend based not on the way the food looked on their TV, or even the judges’ reactions, but on the chefs' personality types. Winner Paul Qui played the part of the likable, soft-spoken guy who “just cooked good food” and won the role of the season’s protagonist.
The past few years have been tough, and so it makes sense that we have sought comfort in adult footed pajamas, bacon, butter, and remaining in our romantic relationships even when the box has been open so long that they’re as stale as cardboard nuggets. It makes sense that, over a period of time when many of us have lost our jobs and residences, we seek ways to self-parent by wrapping ourselves up in Snuggies and devoting grandma-like brain space to what will make up our three squares a day. The connection between food and emotion is complex, covering all sorts of ground from vitamin deficiencies to sense-activated memory: Even thinking about comfort food is enough to combat loneliness. Is that why we watch so many cooking shows?