Reality TV Transparency

Reality TV Transparency

Well, Hell's Kitchen is over now, and–based on what we saw on the show–a hard-working but unskilled and hopelessly neurotic young chef has won the opportunity to run an honest-to-God restaurant into the ground. Unless of course she's not really going to have the chance. Unless, maybe, her new title is largely ceremonial, and someone else will be running the day-to-day operations. It's likely we'll never know, since Hell's Kitchen is one of the least transparent of the competitive reality shows.

It works like this: on shows like Survivor and Project Runway, we know that the footage has been edited to tell a story, but there's so much external media coverage of the show–including interviews with the cast-off contestants, and follow-ups with the winners–that we get some sense of what's been fudged, and what's really real. And whenever something unusual happens, like PR3's Keith getting booted for having pattern-books, the producers include most of the relevant details in the show itself. There's at least the illusion that we're getting a full story out of a full season, even when that story goes in unexpected directions.

But Hell's Kitchen comes from that weird extra-dimensional Fox TV Reality realm, where contestants have no apparent life before or after taping begins–aside from the inevitable glimpse of family members during the finale–and even the game itself seems completely stage-managed. I know Gordon Ramsay's a real dude–I've watched his terrific BBC series Kitchen Nightmares–but I've rarely been convinced that that any of the show's competing chefs have any real interest in cooking for a living, or that their "customers" are anything more than Fox employees and Hollywood extras. (I did see last season's runner-up Ralph on Iron Chef America, though who knows what happened to Michael, who in some kind of shady back-room deal took an apprenticeship with Ramsay over his own restaurant.)

Hell's Kitchen is still damned entertaining, but would it hurt the reality of this reality show if it were more upfront about how one actually gets the chance to eat in their misbegotten backlot restaurant? Because right now it all just seems so phony.

At least Hell's Kitchen is more believable than Who Wants To Be A Superhero?, the incomprehensible game being played on the Sci-Fi Network by a handful of people who are clearly part-time actors, not comic book fans. Nothing on this show feels the least bit real. Not the competition itself, which has a bunch of dopey hams in costumes trying to out-do each other at being "selfless" and "heroic" whenever Stan Lee's watching, and then sniping at each other when he turns his back. And certainly not the challenges, which have included noticing a crying child in a park and carrying her to a door clumsily marked "Security," and fetching Lee's lunch without revealing their secret identities to the hot waiters and waitresses. (Almost everyone failed that one, especially when the servers asked for tips on finding a casting agent.)

It's a new low for "reality" TV. And I can't stop watching it.

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