Tuesday, April 18, 2006

How Badly Can You Mess Up A Cooking Show? This Bad

Normally I don't think that it's good practice to write a review of a movie or TV show when you fall asleep part way through it.There are exceptions to this rule of course and Celebrity Cooking Showdown is one of them. It is hard to find a word that is really suitable to describe just how bad this show is so I'll go with a word that I normally don't use: this show sucks, or as Ned Flanders might put it, it "suck-diddly-ucks".

Now strictly speaking I didn't fully fall asleep, I sort of dozed into that happy land of closing your eyes and opening them and realising that five minutes have passed and you have absolutely no memory of what happened in those few minutes except that your eyes have been closed and you liked it. As opposed to keeping your eyes open and actually seeing this steaming pile of crap.

The first sign that this show was going to be awful is when Howie Mandel handed off to the new show's host - Alan Thicke. Now I'm a Canadian and have fond memories of when Alan Thicke hosted an afternoon talk show up here but since then I've increasingly found him to be living up to his name - Thicke, as in "thick as a brick". Somehow he seems pompous and maybe a bit arrogant. Suffice it to say that I haven't been able to stand him since Growing Pains.

In this show Thicke's job is a sort of combination of game show host and colour commentator. In the game show host role his job is to introduce us to the contestants and their professional chef advisors, as well as to explain the rules of the game. The trouble with that is that there seemed to have been more rules than were needed and they kept adding rules. The celebrities had to make three dishes - a salad, a main course and a desert - in a period of 50 minutes. If they'd left it at that it might have been okay but the producers seemed to be adding rules. The celebrities have all the ingredients they need to make their dishes ... except for for two which are hidden in the pantry. The professional chefs have already taught their celebrity proteges how to make the dishes and can't help them ... except that the celebrities are allowed to help the celebrities twice, for two minutes each time when either the celebrity or they decide that they need help. In fact after the last "professional intervention" occurred Thicke stepped forward and threw some sort of red flag onto the ground, presumably to indicate that no further aid would be permitted. Then suddenly he tells us that the professional chefs would be allowed to help the celebrities in the last three competitive minutes of the show. It almost seems as if Alan Thicke had forgotten to tell us this little detail or the producers suddenly realised that these people needed help so they'd better give them a few minutes with there pro at the end of the show to make sure things are edible.

The truly ridiculous part of Thicke's participation isn't his role as "game show host," it's his job as colour commentator. I have to admit that his failings here aren't his fault. Thicke doesn't know much about food which would seem to be a handicap for someone hosting a show that is essentially a cooking competition but the fault lies more with the producers for forcing him into this sort of double duty. At times Thicke has to resort to asking the celebrities' professional teachers what they're doing and how they're doing, a practice that frequently leads to the pro cheerleading for his celebrity. The best solution would be to hire a second host to serve as a neutral expert - a Phil Gordon or Phil Hellmuth to Thicke's Dave Foley - who would explain what the celebrities are doing and more importantly whether they are doing it well.

The professional chefs are an interesting group, probably more so than the celebrities. The chefs are Wolfgang Puck (chef to the stars and "media whore" - who appears occassionally on the NBC series Las Vegas), Cat Cora (the first woman Iron Chef on Food Network's Iron Chef America), and hot young L.A. chef Govind Armstrong. As for the celebrities, On Monday the three celebrities were supermodel Cindy Margolis (who on Monday was showing a ton of cleavage), Kansas City Chief's All-Pro Tight End Tony Gonzalez, and Days of Our Lives star Allison Sweeney. To say the least none of them looked particularly comfortable in the kitchen, which as far as I'm concerned is a problem. Most of these people are as bad in the kitchen as I am, if not worse. I at least want to see people who know what they're doing in the kitchen. Since this is a competition there are judges. Here the show has shown some sense. The two judges are "lifestyle consultant" Colin Cowie and former New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene (who is either nuts about hats or desperate to hide her identity by looking absurd). Their task, at least in the first three shows, is to judge the celebrity's food - usually based on one taste - based on flavour and presentation. On Thursday night viewers will judge the winner's dishes at least as far as presentation (obviously) with the judges votes only counting for taste.

I am not prepared to say that the producers of this show got it all wrong. There was one aspect that I thought was brilliant and that was running the show in real time. Rather than breaking for commercial and carrying on after the break without apparent interruption - and yes this would involve editing but it's what all the versions of Iron Chef have done - action occurs while the show is in commercial. I suppose this could get a bit confusing on those occasions when a pro chef has gone down to help his celebrity and returned, all while the TV was showing GE appliances and an assortment of other consumer goods. On the other hand the show falls down with the provision of a large and boisterous crowd which is extremely extracting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Thicke seems to be forced to shout all the time. They do seem to insist on counting down time any opportunity they can get.

NBC seems to be pretty desperate to get onto the whole "celebrity/reality" concept which saw C listers dancing with professional dancers on Dancing With The Stars and figure skating Skating With Celebrities on Fox. There's even celebrities playing Poker on Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown. I suppose that some one at the network thought that combining "celebrities" with cooking would be a good match, drawing in people who watch celebrities and those who watch something like food network to see how to cook the sort of food they will in reality never even try to prepare. The result was bad: the UPN version of Iron Chef USA was bad but this was ten thousand times worse. In watching the celebrities trying to cook I always had the distinct feeling that the gimmicks of the competition's rules - like hiding two key ingredients - took away from any weight that the show might have had. In the end it came across as a poorly thought out mess. My one hope is that once this week of episodes of this ends someone will be wise enough to consign this show to the in sink garbage disposal of history.

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