Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Two For One

Two for one is an offer you usually can’t pass up in a store, but when it comes to TV reviews – at least from me – it signifies that all or part of the deal is something you can pass up. You can tell because I’m not spending a lot of time on either show. On Monday night FOX and NVC debuted two summer shows. One is “original” and controversial, and one basically recycles another show that is already on the same network in a different setting. I really didn’t like one but could just about tolerate the other. Neither one is a bad as The Glass House, but that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot.

hotel_hellLet’s start with FOX, and it’s new show Hotel Hell. It’s the recycled one. It takes everything about Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares – including Gordon Ramsay – and moves it to hotels with problems. While for most people this may have been the summer of the London Olympics, or the summer of the great heat wave, or the summer of the drought, for FOX this has been the Summer of Ramsay, since this is third Gordon Ramsay series of the summer, joining Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef. Shows from Ramsay’s production company, One Potato Two Potato, occupy almost a third of FOX’s primetime line-up this summer.

How much of a copy of Kitchen Nightmares is Hotel Hell? Probably as close as if Xerox had done it. Honestly, I think that there are more differences between X-Factor and American Idol than there are between these two shows. In Kitchen Nightmares Ramsay goes to a restaurant, samples the substandard product, yells and swears at the usually delusional owner and frequently at the staff, and over the course of a week (condensed into an hour on TV) sets the place to rights and walks away feeling it’s a job well done. The fact that a fairly large number of the restaurants that Ramsay has worked with go broke generally isn’t mentioned unless they’ve gone out of business because they reverted to their old habits and ignored all the improvements that Gordon put in place.

Hotel Hell is pretty much the same thing except maybe spread over two hours instead of one. In the debut episode, Gordon checks into the Juniper Hill Inn in Vermont. Which isn’t actually easy because the obvious front entrance is blocked off – something to do with snow load according to the owner. When Ramsay finally does get in he finds a place stuffed with antiques and art work. He’s taken to a beautiful room…that stinks of backed up sewage, and the owner seems surprised when he asks for a different room. Ramsay then goes down for lunch, only to discover that the chef doesn’t serve lunch. But Gordon prevails and gets a lunch from the dinner menu including a macadamia encrusted rack of lamb that’s virtually raw. In fact the desert is the only thing that’s good, and that’s provided by one of the hotel’s suppliers. There are no prices on the menu except for a note that there is a $15 extra charge for the lamb. Ramsay’s total bill would come to $74 for the meal.

During the course of lunch Ramsay discovers that his server, a 70 year-old woman with a crush on Gordon, he discovers that she has had to argue with the owner to get paid regularly. A survey of most of the staff, including the chef, indicates that none of them have been paid regularly and that where wages are edging close to slave wages; the chef’s salary amounts to about $21,000 a year, and the server seems to paid around $7,000 a year, and their pays is usually days and sometimes weeks late. Where I live would be grounds for a complaint to the Labour Relations Board, but this is Vermont not Saskatchewan. The previous chef, who Ramsay interviews but absolutely refuses to set foot in the Inn even after Ramsay gets finished with it, used to buy produce using her own credit cards and then have to fight the owner to get payment. The owner and his partner (Business and Life) don’t live in the hotel but in a motor home – sorry a motor coach (the owner actually corrects Ramsay on that) – parked next to the hotel, and as a result are virtually unreachable either by staff or by customers. When the owner and his partner are reachable they come across as elitist snobs who regard their staff as beneath them.

But perhaps the biggest surprise comes from the Inn’s estate manager who take Ramsay on a tour of the places the owner probably didn’t want Ramsay to see. There’s the now unused office which looks like a tornado of trash had hit it. There’s the basement which is filled with unused chairs. And there are four storage containers stuffed with antiques and furnishings. While the Inn is being run off of the partner’s salary and savings (and now the partner has lost his job) the owner has tied his savings up in “art”; the stuff in the basement and storage containers which the estate manager estimates is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The episode ends after a disastrous dinner service in the restaurant where the owner and his partner insist on serving all of the guests at once thereby swamping the kitchen and drinks orders don’t get written down so the guests don’t all pay. It’s a disaster and Ramsay tells the owners so in his usual manner.

StarsearnstripesNBC had the controversial new reality-competition series Stars Earn Stripes, and for once a reality show featuring a member of the Palin clan (in this case Sarah’s husband Todd Palin billed here as “four time Iron Dog winner” – the Iron Dog is a 1,000 mile snowmobile race) is not controversial because a member of the Palin clan is in it. No, in this case the controversy started when Sharon Osborne announced that she was quitting as a judge on America’s Got Talent because, she claimed, NBC discriminated against her son Jack because of his recent diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Jack Osborne was on the shortlist of people who could be on the show but was rejected after his diagnosis, supposedly because of a medical exam for the show. NBC has denied discrimination. The more major controversy took the form of an open letter from nine Nobel Peace Prize recipients including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jodi Williams (the only American of the nine) which demanded that NBC not air the show because, “It is our belief that this program pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence. Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People — military and civilians — die in ways that are anything but entertaining.” Mind you, this was while none of them had even seen an episode of the show.

The show is the product of a collaboration between Dick Wolf (the Law & Order franchise and this fall’s Chicago Fire) and Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor and The Apprentice (and a number of less successful reality-competition series). The show is hosted by former Dancing With The Stars host Samantha Harris, and former NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark. In introducing the show Clark states, “I'm doing this series for one reason to introduce you, the American people, to the individuals that sacrifice so much for all of us.” You will excuse me for being cynical but the fact is that there are far better ways of doing that.

The show features eight celebrities (five men and three women) who are participating for a military or police related charity. They are paired up with eight special forces or law enforcement professionals, known on the show as “operatives.” The teams are:
  • Actor Dean Cain with Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle
  • Skier Picabo Street with Navy Seal Brent Gleason
  • “Outdoorsman” Todd Palin with former Marine and current New York MTA police officer J.W. Cortes
  • Singer/ Actor Nick Lachey with SWAT Commander Tom Stroup
  • Former WWE ”Diva” Eve Torres with Green Beret Grady Powell
  • Biggest Loser trainer Dolvett Quince with Marine Andrew McLaren
  • Former Boxer Laila Ali with Navy Corpsman Talon Smith
  • Action star Terry Crews with Delta Force soldier Dale Comstock

The celebrities meet up with their operatives at a training camp where they will learn about the equipment they’ll be using in a specific “mission” and learn a few techniques, like how to crawl under barbed wire or how to breach a door using a sledge hammer. Then they meet with General Clark in the “command center” to get their mission. In the first mission is called “Amphibious Landing.” The celebrities and their operatives are split into four teams of four for this mission. They have to drop from a helicopter into a lake then swim to a Zodiac inflatable boat. Once aboard the boat they are landed on the beach where they have to avoid a “minefield” and make it to some oil drums. At the oil drums the celebrities first have to use a grenade launcher to destroy a guard tower, and then use their light machine gun and rifle to hit six targets, some man shaped and others circle targets. Once those targets are hit the “operatives each have to hit three “transmitters” each (red light bulbs on top of two electrical cabinets. Once that’s done the teams have to crawl under a barbed wire entanglement and recover a box marked “Ammo” from along the beach. The box must be carried to a shed where the team have to breach the door and put the box inside along with a charge of C4 explosives. Then they are extracted by helicopter, blowing the C4 remotely once they are clear. The two celebrities on the lowest scoring team (aka the slowest team in this case) face off on a “shoot-off” with the slowest person there going home, while the remainder earn a “stripe” and money for their charity.

Or at least that was how it was supposed to go. I won’t go into detail about the competition except to mention that two of the celebrities – Dolvett Quince (teamed with Todd Palin for this mission) and Terry Crews (teamed with Picabo Street) were unable to make it to the Zodiac and had to be rescued with a jet ski. Even though their team mates were able to complete the mission (and I have to say that Todd Palin was sort of impressive carrying the “Ammo” crate along the beach, which was really a mud flat) General Clark decided that  it was only fair that Quince and Crews face each other in the elimination round.

The Elimination was a race between the two men. They first had to breach a door and shoot out six targets, some of which were moving. Quince was slightly ahead after this part of the course. They then moved on to a firing range with targets at various ranges including a large moving target at the far end of the range that blew up when hit properly. Quince finished this part of the race quickly and built up a lead while Crews seemed to be hitting the big target but nothing was happening It took him a long time to realise than instead of firing at the centre mass of the target (as police officers and soldiers are generally taught to do) he needed to go for a head shot for the target to explode. Once he figured this out he moved on to the final part of the race, a sniper test. This was the only part of the course that the “operatives” were able to help their celebrities on, serving as spotters as they shot. The target was a plastic strip which joined two pieces of cable together. At the bottom of the cable was a box that would blow up when it hit the ground. Although Quince had a big lead when he moved to the sniper test he simply could not zero in on the plastic strip. Crews settled in and (apparently) hit his strip with a single shot.Crews won his stripe while Quince was eliminated with some money for his charity, Got Your 6 an entertainment industry campaign that “will help create a new conversation in America, one where veterans and military families are perceived as both leaders and civic assets.”

The celebrities participating in Stars Earn Stripes spend a lot of the show talking about how tough the show is physically (undoubtedly) and how it gives them a idea of what the real life fighting men go through (hardly). In response to the letter from the Nobel Laureates Dean Cain has said, “This whole show is a love song to our men and women in uniform ... We're not trying to glorify war, we're glorifying service.” And while Cain may think it is true, it’s a hard idea to swallow. What the show is depicting isn’t the experience of the average soldier serving in Kandahar  Province. The celebrities aren’t undergoing the experience of an attack by a suicide bomber or an IED exploding as they are driving along a seemingly peaceful road. They don’t find themselves suddenly under attack with little warning or having to take a fortified farmhouse that may or may not be booby trapped. The show is putting the celebrities through a variety of probably simplified versions of special forces training exercises. The celebrities do find themselves under fire and are using real bullets, but whoever is shooting those bullets and setting off those explosions is making a very conscious effort to not hit anything or anyone. Not like the real lives of American servicemen in combat at all.

So there we have it; two new reality shows, one of them a competition (the form I prefer) and the one I like better….is Hotel Hell. Yes, the show is a retread of another – better – show and yes the concept doesn’t tread far from the format of the original, but there is something very reassuring about listening to Gordon Ramsay yelling at people, particularly people who absolutely deserve to be yelled at (like the owner and his partner at the Juniper Hill Inn). One could almost call it satisfying. And that one quality alone, that it satisfies a certain desire to see people who provide bad service yelled at by a person like Ramsay who makes an art-form puts Hotel Hell miles ahead of Stars Earn Stripes.

When it comes down to it, after all of the self justifying statements by the participants, including Wesley Clark’s statement at the beginning, this show isn’t about introducing “you, the American people, to the individuals that sacrifice so much for all of us.” The whole show has the quality of a video game like Call Of Duty, rather than the real life of most of the people in anybody’s military, be it American, Canadian, or British. The “missions” may be adapted from real training missions for special forces, but the way they are presented makes them feel just as real as a mission in a video game, which is to say not real at all. With all due respect to Desmond Tutu and the other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who signed the open letter to NBC, this show doesn’t glorify war by making it a game. Nor is it a “love song” or a love letter to the men and women in uniform. It is a blatant effort to shoot off guns and blow things up for the entertainment of the viewers because of course TV viewers love to see things blow up. I’m most disappointed not with the celebrities who participated in the show or with NBC for airing it or even with Mark Burnett for producing it (although come on Mark, you could have worked harder to get another season of Expedition Impossible on the air; that was a show that I liked). No, I am most disappointed with General Clark for participating in this mess and for trying to justify it. It is beneath what I expect of him, and I can only hope that the paycheque that he got for doing the show was worth the shot to his reputation. This show stinks and my advise to you next week is to watch the combination of Hell’s Kitchen and Hotel Hell instead. Or read a book.

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