America’s Next Great Restaurant is the first time I’ve ever sat down and examined a reality show critically, from week to week. To some degree, this is impossible. Reality shows lend themselves particularly well to the recap format, to me just telling you exactly what happened (which I’ll start in a bit). But that also means that it becomes a lot easier to realize just how similar every single episode of the show is from week to week. This is particularly true for America’s Next Great Restaurant, a show that’s still interesting to me but one that would clearly be in need of some tweaks if the producers were able at all to make tweaks (and the show is done filming, so they can’t). It certainly doesn’t help that every week, the formula stays resolutely the same, right down to the final challenge just being the same basic structure over and over.
But tonight, I was realizing just how little these episodes vary, really, at all, especially when compared to the basic reality show template. An example: In every episode, the judges pull aside the three people they want to call out on the carpet. They meet with these three people one by one to outline their problems. Then, each contestant is given a chance to defend him or herself from the charges leveled against them and make a case for why they should get to stay. After THAT, the judges meet separately and reiterate just what it is that they find distasteful about the contestant. And after THAT, the three contestants come back in, where Bobby Flay reads a list of their transgressions all over again, only slightly condensed. Then, the one who has found the least favor with the judges is cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This isn’t an ANGR-specific structure either. Pretty much every competition reality show of this nature has this basic structure at the end. Project Runway? Check. Top Chef? Definitely. Work Of Art, The Fashion Show, even something like Chopped (which does it in a remarkably short period of time)? For the most part, they copy this structure as well. And I’m not sure what it adds, particularly on a show like this, where the judges remarks and the final criticisms are confined to the same act. It’s just there because that’s the way shows like this have always been, and it would, apparently, be too abrupt to jump from the judges’ discussions to the actual elimination. (I’m sympathetic to this problem; there needs to be something in between, and it might as well be this.) Still, the fact that this formula is still working, many years after it was first introduced, says something about how tight it really is, how little we notice it because it’s still mostly enjoyable after all these years.
Anyway, tonight was “design your restaurant, then pretend you can confine it to a space smaller than a mall food court booth” night, the night when architects finally got involved, and everybody who subscribes to Dwell magazine went a little nuts. (OK, I’m just kidding. No one who reads Dwell would ever want to live inside any of these places, unless they somehow had a huge affection for the puke green of Joe’s Saucy Balls mock-up.) (Come to think of it, what happened to the “brick” and “stainless steel” and “simplicity” of Joe’s original idea? Did he replace that idea with “Let’s make this as confusing as possible”? I can only assume so.) In the interim, Stephenie has decided that her best way to stay alive is not to steal the Wok idea but, instead, to shift entirely to something called “Harvest Sol,” which will feature flavors of the Mediterranean. I guess this makes sense—those who live on the Mediterranean are fairly healthy, and it’s an easier thing to sell than just “healthy food with calories counted for you!”—but it does feel as if she arrived at it arbitrarily. It might have been fun to get more of an idea of the process that led her to this revelation.
But that doesn’t matter. The bulk of this week’s episode is about hating on Alex. Grrrr. The man seems to speak exclusively in empty L.A. buzzwords, and he seems to care far more about being “cool” than about serving a taco that doesn’t suck. Where Krystal and Greg still find themselves mired in their condescending bullshit about tweaking the American redneck, at least they appear to have figured out what the fuck they’re going to serve. (I love that Krystal describes the entirety of the dish they serve to the Dine L.A. people to the judges and doesn’t once say “pulled pork” in the middle of a sentence like an audible punctuation mark, even though it clearly strains her to do so.) Alex continues to be lost in his visions of how super awesome he is, when he’s really just kind of a douchebag. Even worse, he drags the normally enjoyable Eric down with him, when Eric starts agreeing with the shit Alex spews about the other contestants. By far the best moment of the episode was when Steve Ells tried to convince Alex he had a plantain allergy, then abruptly abandoned the joke because he knew just how fucking terrifying he would look if he got all bloated thanks to an allergy, and Alex was clearly quaking in his boots. Ells needs to learn he can’t joke, lest he scare us mere mortals.
This was also the episode where everybody revealed that what they really wanted to do was copy Chipotle, except for Jamawn, who mostly just wants to capture the experience of listening to Motown music in a restaurant or something. (It tastes like burned out dreams and ashes!) Everybody from Sudhir to Eric was all about appeasing the Ells, and Ells even offered a snippy little, “THAT looks familiar,” when he saw Eric’s mock-up of what it would be like to enter Meltworks. It turns out it looks a lot like entering a Chipotle, actually. Eric, as a matter of fact, was the guy who suffered the wrath of the judges this week by not following their advice and just continuing to stick to his three-year-old plan, rather than coming up with some customized dipping sauces (an idea that strikes me as a bit bizarre, but whatever; Flay must have his sauces). The constant difference between the judges and the public at home makes me think that maybe we really haven’t seen what Eric’s sandwiches are like. They really DO look just like paninis, when they need to be some totally ooey-gooey concoctions, packed with cheese. This may prove his undoing, even though many of us have picked him as the frontrunner.
Anyway, Sudhir wins, somewhat unexpectedly (Curtis and Ells got into a proxy fight over the direction his food should go, but the Dine L.A. folks who judged the contest don’t give a damn), with Sandra, Jamawn, Greg and Krystal, and Stephenie skating along to fight another day. The bottom three, then, are Joe, Eric, and Alex, with Alex losing because he all but admits that what he really wants to do is open a super cool bar and call it a day. (Good luck with that, bud.) Eric and Joe, however, come closer to elimination this early than I figured they would, but for opposite reasons. Eric has too much of a plan, one that he seems unwilling to deviate from. Joe has too LITTLE of a plan, and he’s constantly just throwing shit at the wall to see what happens. His food also doesn’t seem so fast casual, which could prove a problem. But given the promo from next week—which features everyone mad at him for bringing the idea of GANGSTERS into a FAMILY DINING ESTABLISHMENT—he may not be long for this world anyway. Or it’s a misleading promo. Like THAT’S ever happened!