We're avid Food Network fans in our house. Alton Brown is one of the coolest foodies to come down the pike, Nigella Lawson one of the hottest, and Guy Fieri one of the most affable and charming.
Like every station, they have been tainted with the stink of the Reality show. The Next Food Network Star has been on four times so far, and has given us two actual "Stars" - the aforementioned Guy, and Aaron McCargo, Jr. (not to be confused with the pokemon Magcargo), star of Big Daddy's House, who just got a second season. The real purpose of these shows is of course to get you to watch THEIR show. If they get a person who actually turns out to be a hit (like Guy, who now has FOUR shows on the channel), that's gravy.
Watching The Next Food Network Star is a delight, in the same way that the Tilt-a-Whirl is a delight. It's best done in short bursts, and it's usually more fun to watch others as they do it. First off, everyone is constantly talking about how this is their dream, and they've worked all their life to get to this point, yakkity schmakkitty. I don't think they could get more emotionally invovled if they were competing for a new kidney for their daughter. The level of emotion on the show is just over the top, especially considering the prize is basically the chance to be on TV some more. There's a lot less "competition" (as in backbiting and bitchiness) on the shows, and that's a plus, but that just opens the door to them all getting to know one another and getting all weepy-peepy as each one leaves. Most of the true drama about the show is accidental, like in season three where one of the finalists revealed that he'd puffed up his resume (like the part where he'd fought in Afghanistan), and they booted him off before the final episode. So they had to bring back the last-booted competitor, the terminally panicky Amy Finley, who went on to win the competition, get her six episodes dumped on Sunday Afternoons, then reveal she turned down the chance to come back for a second season because it was all too stressful. Good friggin' riddance. Just once I wished the judges had complained about how salty her damn food was from her crying all the time. GOD I hated her. Alton Brown had the most telling comment of the season- "Couldn't we just start over with eleven new people?" If only, dear boy. If...Only.
But NFNS is peanuts compared to Food Network Challenge. Peppered in amongst the national pie competitions, the Pillsbury bake-off and BBQ-fests are the tentpoles of the series, the cake contests. The best pastry and candy chefs in the world compete to create the most outlandish comestibles in a theme, whether it be Disney cakes, Las Vegas inspired sugar sculptures, or something equally outlandish.
And just like NASCAR, a tiny, evil part of your brain tunes in to watch one of these massive works of confectionary take a not-quite-graceful pa-twa-dee out of their hands and shatter on the ground in a cloud of flour and sadness. And the station knows that's what you want, because they'll edit in the one or two calamitous surrenders to gravity they HAVE had into every commercial. And as you're watching, they'll show you a reaction shot of someone in the audience that makes you think one of of them is not just gonna go down, but catch on fire and take out half the judges.
I get that they're competing for money, and I get that these competitions can be very stressful. But sweet merciful pancakes, Shirley Jackson put less stress in The Lottery. It's food. It should be a source of fun and calories, an analogy for sex, and occasionally a meal. The only stress and drama it should hold is its unconscious connection to the joy and/or guilt of one's childhood, and nine times out of ten, that's not worth a TV show.
Of all their reality shows, the two best at the moment are Iron Chef America, the American version of the show that gave the food Network its start, hosted by the increasingly ubiquitous Alton Brown, and Chopped, hosted by Ted Allen, the one Queer Eye alumnus who had both charm before the camera and the gentle, non-threatening kind of homosexuality that Americans prefer. The concept behind both is the same - mystery ingredients that must be mixed into a meal. While ICA has ONE ingredient that must be incorporated into at least five dishes, all cooked at once, Chopped spins the idea around, and the competitors get a number of ingedients that all must be used in a single course, with three course for the whole competition. In both cases, there's no TIME for ridiculous drama. Iron Chef is much more about the expertise of the Chefs, and watching them balance multiple dishes at once. Chopped is more personal but no less frenetic, and their mid-show interviews are much more on the level of "How the hell am I supposed to use peanut butter, seaweed and curry powder together?"
For all the ways they try to make the food exciting, it's the straightforward cooking shows that are the winner for me. I'll watch Good Eats over Lost any day.
When I get my cooking show, it will be called "To Serve Man", and my first cookbook will be called "It's A Cookbook! It's a COOKBOOK!!!" I addition to regular cooking that the average male can understand (Episode one -"I am Jack's Kitchen") I will make liquid nitrogen ice cream, cook things with lasers, and in one episode there will be a little picture in the corner of a toaster containing blueberry pop-tarts, counting down the time that they take to burst into flame. Kinda like "Good Eats" meets "Brainiac: Science Abuse". I always said Alton Brown was similar to Jearl Walker - I'm gonna take the next step.
Ya know, I think they're casting Season five of NFNS now...