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Tuesday, 08 April
Theater Of Cruelty

Sometime last year, the wife and I got sucked into something horrible; wriggling fish trapped inside the hideous trawl nets of reality programming. (Note how I just absolved myself of any personal responsibility by adopting a passive pose in this scenario. It is of course complete bullshit, but it makes me feel better to think it so.)

Now, we are not strangers to reality programming, a term that as we all know by now is a laughably hollow euphemism anyway. We have always enjoyed The Amazing Race, for instance, a show whose genius is largely twofold. For one thing, instead of the usual "individuals against each other" format, that show memorably traps teams of two together for hellishly unfun worldwide shriek-treks that combine the best of travel porn with the best of schadenfreude: we the viewers get to enjoy footage of exotic locales combined with the enjoyment of watching exhausted, squabbling dyads routinely fail to have time to enjoy them.

And there's the typical Bravo formula that started with Project: Runway and continued on nearly unchanged with Top Chef: assemble a team of assorted talents and then assail them and berate them and mercilessly whittle them down until, Highlander-like, there remains ONLY ONE! And then everyone goes home and hopes they were somehow memorable enough to merit some small allocation of the public's collective memory so that someday, maybe they can sell some t-shirts on HSN. Or, increasingly, simply make future appearances on these same shows. Our cultural statesman are, more and more, turning out to be grotesquely feckless entities such as Ted Allen and Rocco DiSpirito.

And you know whose fault all this is? Mine. Me and the wife. We're responsible. Because you know: I can live with Project: Runway and Top Chef. Heavily mediated by the producers as these shows are, they do seem to make skeletal, gnomic gestures at seeming to care about the (often ridiculous and mindbending) tasks assigned to the contestants. They've got a nearly charming old-school strain of Americana in them, in that by gosh, these contestants are scrappy and faceless, but if they persevere and just do their darnedest, they could, against the odds, come out on top, just like your fucking grandfather and his stories about his goddamn hat store and how for ten years he ate nothing but felt just to get by! Only, you know, compressed into twelve weeks or so. Imagine the Great Depression divided into heavily edited half-hour chunks and you have the essence of reality TV.

Or so I thought. But there's something else out there. That thing is called Hell's Kitchen, and God fucking help me, but we've been watching. It is difficult to get a handle on or make meaningful comparisons to it without traveling out into the blasted hinterlands of MTV or VH1, where awful, I-thought-they-died rock stars are holding rimjob auditions or shows like "You Can Stick Things In My Eye For $50" are happening, and I'm not prepared for that, so I just have to muddle through. This desperate, awful thing is on network TV, albeit FOX, so . . . yeah, of course it is.

Hell's Kitchen features the usual assortment of goons, trauma junkies, harridans and hairheads and their inevitable debasement at the hands of the Scottish celeb chef Gordon Ramsay, a monstrous shockheaded coprolaliac with a penchant for throwing improperly prepared food at people while also blaring hilariously accented catchphrases such as "YOU FUCKING DUNN-KEY!" and, our favorite, after tasting some ill-executed dish, "IT'S IN-ED-I-BOW!"

Hell's Kitchen is fascinating as pure theater, in some ways. It's a nearly immiscible concoction that tries to mix Grand Guignol together with Commedia dell'Arte and instead winds up being something that Artaud would have tried out had he 1. had access to editing equipment and 2. been even crazier. Like Guignol or Commedia, the show bears virtually no resemblance to reality except in the most caricatured way possible; in fact the show takes great pains to divorce itself from anything remotely reminiscent of reality at all, from the comically profane Ramsay figure to the trudging and catastrophically hopeless contestants to the pitiful put-upon Belgian maitre'd who cannot act at all to the bizarre editorial insistence that the show is actually taking place in a real restaurant. (It is, of course, shot on a soundstage.)

In tonight's episode, Ramsay decides to edumacate his luckless charges about the horrors of wasting food, and so makes them crawl through the trash from the previous episode's dinner and pick out all the rotten food. This is how perverted this show is: it's a restaurant show ostensibly about what good cooking should be, and he's got them scrounging around in spoiled meat. Anyway, after this pointless bit of ritual humiliation is over, Ramsay then continues this demented lesson by demonstrating how to filet a halibut. Then they all have a chance to desecrate a poor fish themselves, and Ramsay evaluates their skills at carving out perfect 6-ounce filets. As he judges each team's effort, and (of course) finds certain specimens wanting, what does he do with the offending filets? He throws them over his shoulder onto the floor.

This is, to me, America. It's another thing we ripped off from the Brits and then hauled over here so we didn't have to listen to them complain about it. It doesn't make any sense, either internally or outwardly. It has stock characters so we don't have to think about it too hard. Plenty of profanity. There are always, of course, a couple of chicks with big tits. It's witless and loud and wasteful and, I guess, it's exactly what we deserve.

Especially me. But I like to think Artaud would have approved.

Note: Comments are closed on old entries.


Although I genuinely believe that all reality programming is one giant collective virus that gives everyone eye herpes, I admit to having been sucked into Hells Kitchen in the past. Though I don't cook for a living, I still slave over a hot stove frequently enough to be mildly interested in watching a British rage-fiend descend upon people wearing white coats and playing with meat and fire. Actually, if you removed the cooking from the show, I'd probably still watch.

Comment number: 017241   Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' on April 9, 2008 07:36 AM from IP:

TELL me you saw the first episode, with the hapless bastards' 'signature dishes'. One served scallops tartare with white chocolate, and Ramsey threw it up on the spot. It was magnificent.

Comment number: 017242   Posted by: pi216 on April 11, 2008 10:38 AM from IP:

Oh, we saw it all right. I think it was at that precise moment I stopped wondering what I was going to write about that week.

Comment number: 017243   Posted by: Skot on April 11, 2008 01:09 PM from IP:

I can't endure this show. Top Chef is interesting because there are (some) contestants who can actually cook. Hell's Kitchen is just abuse-bags for Ramsay to yell at.

His Kitchen Disasters show on the BBC was quite interesting, but this is poopy.

By which I mean great. Carry on.

Comment number: 017246   Posted by: kaf on April 14, 2008 01:41 PM from IP:

Congrgats and cudos. Rare is it indeed I am forced to seek out the dictionary during a blog read (coprolaliac - GREAT word).

You write funny stuff - consistantly. Thank you very much.

Makes me wish I was a reg in the bar that shall not be named!


Comment number: 017272   Posted by: BoatSailor on April 21, 2008 12:21 PM from IP:

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