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February 10, 2006

Iron Chef vs. Iron Chef

I've been watching a lot of Iron Chef lately.

It's one of those things that ebbs and flows. I don't watch any for a month, then I consume 12 episodes in a week. But I record both religiously, and flip back and forth depending on how the ingredients and chefs interest me. So now that IC America is entering its third season and I've had a little time to get past the initial superficial comparisons, I think I've finally nailed down the essential difference between the two shows.

To be clear, I think they're both great. The absolute genius of the original Iron Chef requires no elucidation. And despite having gargantuan shoes to fill, I think IC America has done a rather fine job. It isn't the original, and nothing ever will be, but they managed to maintain most of the spirit without overreaching too much. They've maintained the freewheeling creative spirit. They take the competitive aspect very seriously. I'd even go so far as to say that I generally prefer the judges... more people with food knowledge and fewer BDJs (Bimbo Du Jour, for those not up on IC shorthand). But I think I've finally put my finger on the most critical difference between the two series:

Fukui-san and Doc Hattori.

Not them specifically, though they are both great characters who couldn't be replicated (or at least their Canadian VO counterparts), but rather the manner in which they fulfill their roles. Alton Brown is a great commentator. He's knowledgable, he's funny in a nerdy eye-rolling sort of manner, and he's generally personable and enjoyable to watch. But he isn't a sports announcer, and that's the difference. In Fukui-san's play by play and Doc Hattori's color commentary, the original Iron Chef producers found the culinary version of a first class sports announcer team. While IC America has grasped the drama and the competitive spirit, by dropping that style of commentary and keeping the live audience silent and in the dark, they've lost the sporting event feel that the original had. It was named "Kitchen Stadium" for a reason. As such, watching IC America feels more like observation than participation. It's just as interesting to watch, but that sense of excitement that the original cultivated is lacking.

Now that I've finally put a finger on it, it's a little frustrating. IC America is a great show, I think they did a great job in trying to live up to ridiculous expectations, and I'll continue watching it regularly. But the fact that a couple of very minor tweaks could have taken it from great to fantastic is a little frustrating.


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