Look, Top Chef, we need to talk. I work in reality television, so I know how hard it is to produce an entertaining show. I also understand how grueling it is to stay fresh and creatively engaged in season 9 of a rigidly structured show. But you’ve gone off the rails this season, Top Chef, and you need to get back to the basics. I’ve been fast-forwarding past the tooth brushing in act 1 and all of the faux-deliberations in act 6 for years now, and I’m starting to fast-forward through anything that doesn’t involves shiny knives or a grumpy bald guy. In short, you’re in trouble.
The first sign of trouble this season: One of these things is not like the other. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Chicago. Miami. New York City. Las Vegas. Washington D.C. Texas.
Did you spot it? Let me give you a hint, it’s the one that’s NOT A CITY. It’s that massive 2nd tier state with a soon to be failing economy that leaps out at you. Did you think we wouldn’t notice that names like “Dallas” or “Houston” or “San Antonio” seem to be conspicuously missing?
Do you know why they’re missing? Because nobody associates any part of Texas with food. The state dish is admittedly delicious BBQ, but it’s best served behind a gas station on a plastic tray, with half a loaf of Wonder Bread as a chaser. The unofficial motto is “everything’s bigger in Texas.” Note carefully that it’s not “everything’s BETTER in Texas”, just bigger. When it comes to culture, Texas makes Donald Trump look classy. Nobody moves to Texas looking for any kind of cutting-edge cultural experience unless you’re in Austin, the city who’s mantra is “Please ignore the map because we’re really not a part of Texas.” On the national stage, Texas is mostly known for choking – whether it’s Tony Romo under pressure or George W. Bush eating a pretzel. This is the food culture you want to tap into?
OK, I get it. You’re looking to spread your wings and explore, but let’s be serious. Top Chef should be like the Super Bowl. All you have to do is rotate through the same three or four base cities (NY, LA, SF, and because they have Grant Achatz, Chicago) and call it a day. If you want to put Padma in chaps, then import a cowboy. If you want a change-up, try New Orleans. You can’t justify San Antonio as a point of culinary interest any more than you could justify Denver, Detroit, or Dallas.
Second: The two opening “audition” episodes might be the lowest point in series history. It’s clear that the 150 chefs you’ve featured to date have pretty much exhausted the talent pool of undiscovered A-list, TV friendly chefs. You don’t need to advertise that by exposing us to 100 more C-list chefs who don’t stand a chance of making the casting cut. Your job – your very raison d’etre as producers – is to find, recruit, and choose 15 interesting chefs and test their endurance for my amusement. Staging a repetitive, American Idol style auditioning cook-off is the antithesis of what makes your show interesting.
Beyond that, the judging panel methodology of American Idol does not work for you. On Idol, for better or worse, I can hear what is reasonably close to what the judges are hearing. It’s a little interesting because I’m working with the same information that they have. On Top Chef, I have nothing to work with. I can’t smell or taste the plates, I’m experiencing it vicariously through your judges. This is not a show that invites “play along at home”. This is a show about pressure, personality and imagination. Forcing Tom, Padma, and some random schmuck to play Simon, Paula, and some random schmuck is embarrassing and dramatically uninteresting.
Either a chef is good enough for Top Chef, or they’re not. If you want to show me some cocky young buck or tear-jerking sob story, then cast them. I know that if you’re focusing on some interesting story in those opening episodes that they’re just going to get cut. If they’re interesting and make it, you’ll save their story for when the bullets go live. If they’re interesting but don’t make it, you’re going to squeeze that out while you can. (And if they’re uninteresting, as many of them are, why are you showing me at all?)
Just do your job, Top Chef. Cast the best you can, put them under pressure in the kitchen somewhere and see who rises to the challenge.
Production values are slipping, too. The green screen for the interviews have hit a nadir at many points so far this season. For the uninitiated, those beautifully composed interview shots that comprise the bulk of the show are usually shot in a cramped room behind the set with the chef sitting in front of a green sheet like they’re posing for a portrait at Sears. Post-production magic swaps out the green screen and replaces it with a gorgeous wall ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. There’s no smooth way to say this, but this is Hollywood 101 at this point, and Top Chef has done a technically poor job of it. The process is called “keying”, and if you look at the Heavy Girl With Disheveled Hair, you can see that all the detail has been keyed out of that lesbian rat’s nest on her head. That’s kind of forgivable because fine threads of hair are tough to key out, but pulling a bad key on Old Bald And Bitter Chef is inexcusable on a technical level.
And tell the people who shoot the food inserts to lay off the rack focus. Yes, the crew must be very excited by the new tilt-shift lens, but the same rack focus on 16 consecutive plates of food is tiresome. While you’re at it, smack the editor who cut those in, too. There must be something on a slider you could alternate with.
You know how I can tell this season is off? Tom Colicchio can’t be bothered to hide it. He’s never suffered bad chefs lightly, but making him send one contestant home in the middle of the first challenge was embarrassing – both to him, the show, and the chef. Watching the quinceanera episode, until the eating started he couldn’t be bothered to wipe that condescending look off his face. There were at least five shots of him in the episode last night where he was clearly thinking: ”Who thought this was a good idea? What the hell is this idiotic party I’m stuck at? Where the hell is the nearest decent restaurant? When can I go back to see my kids? Why the fuck am I here?”
That’s the only real saving grace so far this season – Tom’s expertise and intolerance of poor cooking gives Top Chef enough gravity to hold together when the show threatens to go Real Housewives. His judgments are the reason to keep watching, and when he looks like he’s checked out, the show is in deep trouble.
Look, Top Chef, it’s first-world problems to keep a successful and beloved show running. But learn from those who have failed before you, and accept your place in the world. Nobody wants to see a 100 yard dash determine who runs The Amazing Race. Stick to what you do best – finding interesting chefs, put them under extreme pressure, and let us watch them rise or fall.