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December 11, 2006

Top Chef Annoyance

Okay, I don't want to turn into a reality television blog, I really don't. But my discontent has been growing and I need to open the floor for discussion.

Is anybody else irritated with season two of Top Chef?

It took a lot for reality television to finally rope me. Not only was it a subject near and dear, but I thought the first season of Top Chef struck a nice balance. Yes, it's reality TV. Yes, without conflict they don't have an audience. Yes, to generate said conflict they sometimes need to stoke the fire a bit... or at least provide the matches. But at the end of the day, the show never forgot that it was still centered around a compelling competition with (mostly) talented chefs. If there's a scale of serious competition vs. artificial drama, I thought season one parked itself squarely in the middle, and that's why it won me over.

Now, sadly, I can't shake the feeling that that the food has taken a backseat to the fireworks. Maybe I'm being overly critical, or maybe I have an overly rosy recollection of season one. But I need to know if this is all a figment of my imagination. The evidence, after the jump, so as to avoid spoilers:

The Competitors
I suppose I should have just titled this one Mikey. Why is he still here? But more importantly, why was he even selected in the first place? Has he made a single compelling dish yet? Has he made more than one or two competent dishes the entire time? Sure, you have to have characters. The show needs a clown. But season one's clown (Miguel) could cook! And working under the assumption that the submission pool was far larger for season two, I don't believe for a second that there weren't hordes of equally compelling characters who actually knew what they were doing. Unless Midgely somehow miraculously pulled the wool over everybody's eyes and fooled the producers into thinking he could actually cook, it's painfully clear that they intentionally selected at least one competitor who had absolutely no business being there.

The Editing
Maybe this one's just my imagination, but does it seem as though the food is barely featured at all? I don't have recordings of season one to refer to, but I remember a lot more shots of completed dishes, more descriptions of how they were made, and more discussion of the tasty details. This season, it seems as though they line up eight dishes, blow through the names in 15 seconds, and that's it. There's barely enough time for whoever is speaking to get the dish's name out, much less any sort of careful look at what they're making. This past week, much ado was made of the construction of Betty's dish, both artful and utilitarian... all of the judges raved about it... but does anybody have any idea what she actually did? Did they ever show us? Did I fall asleep for that part? It's as though the producers have decided that the details would bore us and we only care about who wins.

The Restrictions
Do the challenges seem a little restriction happy this year? Don't get me wrong, I'm fully supportive of the theory that restrictions force creativity (hello, Iron Chef!). But you have two opportunities every week to explore different aspects of cooking. Aren't there enough angles from which to approach the challenges that not every single one has to be a "but you can only use X" challenge? And then, this past week, the final straw. Plan and shop for a dish, but we're not going to tell you what equipment you'll have to work with, if any. Excuse me, but what the hell is that?!? What possible purpose does that serve? In the end, they had a fire pit on the beach, which is a perfectly good challenge right there. So why kick it off with the completely pointless exercise of having them plan for nothing? What's next? Prepare dinner with one arm tied behind your back while whistling Bridge Over the River Kwai? For the final, do they just blindfold everybody and have them race across a busy highway? It'd be almost as effective in telling us what kind of chefs they are. Stupid. Just stupid.

The floor's open. Am I the only one who feels this way?


Well, I think season 2 is a big step up. Between the better host (not-billy-joels-wife) and the much, much more experienced and better competitors (mikey excluded), it's a lot less painful to watch.

Mostly the better competitors, though. To a large extent, the people who looked like they could cook on season 1 only looked good in comparison to the many, many more really awful underqualified competitors. Harold, LeAnn, and Tiffani were all good cooks, but there were maybe 5 out of 12 on that show.

On this one, I'd say the best are better than Harold et al, and the worst are still better than the worst on S1.

Plus, Marcel is a much more lovable Stephen. You can tell that man has rolled some d20s in his day.

Hey, Ed!

I'll concede that point... I'd probably have to agree that the average skill of the competitors is higher this time around. It's more the idea that it seems clear they're making at least some contestant decisions purely from a drama standpoint.

But even if most of them are, indeed, more talented on average, how do we know when we get a 2.5 second glance at each of their dishes?

As for Marcel, absolutely. I like that this season's pompous ass still has a certain geeky charm :-)

I don't agree that the chefs are overall better in S2. Stephen was an arrogant ass, but his dishes were quite more refined than anything Marcel could produce. And there was no analog to Mikey in S1. He's a hack who has been on the chopping block (pun intended) more than once. The producers are the only ones interested in keeping him around.

I do however agree that the dishes are taking a back seat to the competition. More than once I can remember saying, "Wait, they only showed (x) dishes" when x+4 were made.

I also agree that the surprises have become more cartoon-ish. That nonsense should be left to the 'quick fire' challenges.

I'm not jumping ship, but the producers better take a look at the show at the end of the year.

No one who compared to Mikey in S1? Maybe not with his attitude, but definitely with less skill than him.

What about that woman who left early because her father died? She was completely talentless. Or Candice? or Lisa?

There aren't any that bad on S2, except *maybe* Mikey, but I think even Mike is a better cook than Candice or Cynthia or Lisa.

Anyway, in both seasons there's been a disclaimer at the end saying "decisions are made in consultation with the producers and the network", and it was pretty clear last year that they were picking who made better TV half the time.

Otherwise, why would Dave have outlasted Candice (by a looong shot) despite being in the bottom group during the 2nd and 3rd elimination challenges?

I seriously don't think most of the food they have made lately looks all that appetizing.

The real problem is how much PRODUCT placement there is. This last one with Kraft was ridiculous. I mean come on! Mayonaisse? Like they can't and wouldn't whip up their own mayo in their own high-end restaurant? This is is not a show for the homecook. I did think the use of the bbq sauce in elia's dish was interesting but still not worth all the product placement. But the food looked better than the Bailey's episode

I agree, Gabriella, the heavy-handedness of the product placement is supremely annoying, but I don't see that as a problem, per se. While it's kind of schlocky, the chefs can work around it.

But it's now been a month since I first posted this, and I increasingly feel as though the food has completely taken a back seat. I thought the seven deadly sins episode was a wonderful step in the right direction... I actually saw and understood what everybody was making... and then it was right back to the same old same old this week. What kind of BBQ sauce was on the chicken wing? No idea. What was unique about Elia's burger? No idea. What accompanied the roasted pork loin other than the polenta, which was only pointed out because it was on the side? No idea. What kind of dipping sauce was served with the tempura? The guest judge passingly said "tartare sauce" at some point, except the blogs on the Bravo website said otherwise.

We're down to the final five, and I still feel as though I only have a vague notion of these chefs' styles, because I've really only gotten a good look at one or two of their dishes. The rest have just been rushed past the camera in a blur.

At this point last season, you know EXACTLY what kind of dishes Harold makes. You knew EXACTLY what kind of dishes Tiffani makes. You knew EXACTLY what type of dishes LeAnn makes. You knew EXACTLY what type of dishes Dave makes. And you knew EXACTLY what type of dishes Stephen makes. This season, the only one I feel like I have a really good grip on is Marcel, and then only beacuse so much attention has been paid to the foam drama.

Still irritated.

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