I essentially have no idea how to grade this episode of America’s Next Great Restaurant. It was some of the best reality television and some of the worst reality television ever, all wrapped into one. And the weird thing is that the good stuff was also the bad stuff. It just depended on how you looked at it. From one angle, Bobby Flay’s seemingly adorable daughter, Sophie, who spent most of the hour pettily crushing dreams and offering insincere laughter when the contestants tried to butter up, was the best character this show has ever had, the only person who could possibly stop Steve Ells in hand-to-hand combat. From another angle, she was a desperation move. “Fuck it. What do we have left? I guess we could throw in Flay’s kid?”
Or take the mascots all of the contestants had to come up with, the better to make their concepts appeal to children. The whole thing smacked of the producers suddenly realizing just how stagnant and boring the show has been in the last few weeks and trying to come up with something—ANYthing—designed to bring back the sense of fun the show had in its first few episodes. The contest was essentially pointless, including several scenes where the contestants sat around with a panel of experts on toys and/or childhood (I guess?) to try and design an awesome toy. But what all of this resulted in was some of the most unintentionally hilarious TV of the season, from Stephenie’s random Pete the Pita figure, designed to, uh, teach kids about how voracious pitas are, to Greg and Krystal just giving up and tossing out a lightning bug that looked like the sort of creature you’d find crawling all over your food at a picnic. But his bottom lit up, Krystal offered weakly. Also, Jamawn had—I shit you not—a cornbread muffin man, and Joey decided that what the kids liked, what would really get them into meatballs, was a giant-ass version of Connect Four. (Joey appears to have no fucking clue how money works, since every business scheme he’s come up with would have involved losing lots of it.)
So you see what I mean. This was an episode filled with everything that makes the show so bad at present, but it was executed with such raw desperation that it became hilarious to watch the show try to hold all of this together. Around the point when the investors were wandering around tasting everybody’s food and checking out the toys, with Sophie laying the contestants low and the camera occasionally asking small children what they thought, I started laughing uncontrollably because the whole thing was just so awkward and terrible, but in the best possible way, where you can tell that talented people are involved in this and are suddenly realizing that it’s not coming together as much as they hoped it might. There’s a certain kind of train wreck TV, where you can tell that everybody involved knows EXACTLY what’s going wrong but doesn’t know how to fix it, and this episode fell directly into that category.
On top of everything else, Sudhir and Jamawn both made the bottom three for the first time ever (Greg and Krystal seemed to treat their eventual eviction as a foregone conclusion, which it was), and they had diametrically opposed responses. Jamawn began all but weeping as he confronted the idea that he had come so close, yet might fall so far. Sudhir plastered that somewhat creepy grin on his face and insisted that he was one of the luckiest men on Earth. Jamawn got criticized for feeding kids unhealthy stuff, when that didn’t seem to be a problem for many of the other contestants. (Though, to be fair, Jamawn has been the recipient of plenty of unfair judges’ decisions in the past, what with the episodes where he and Joey would do the exact same thing, and Joey would get criticized for it but not Jamawn.) Sudhir, meanwhile, got criticized for not making Indian food palatable to kids when it’s pretty obvious that the only way to make Indian food instantly palatable to kids is to serve them chicken McNuggets and pretend that’s the native cuisine of Mumbai. On the other hand, Ells seems to think Sudhir could teach the children of this great nation to like Indian food, just like kids have learned to love Chipotle. (Ells also seemed the most into the toy concept. Maybe the kids he knows dig Chipotle far more than any kids I’ve ever met.)
But it was Greg and Krystal who went home, and the show didn’t skimp on letting us know they would be headed home. This, seriously, was some passion play-level shit in terms of laying out just how badly these two botched things this week. After the show seemed to go out of its way to redeem the two in recent weeks (including this week’s reveal that Krystal has a ton of real-world restaurant experience AND a former job as a teacher, despite being in her late 20s/early 30s, which means that she’s been working since she was 11 and is a time traveler from the era before child labor laws), it spent this week letting them be their old, easy-to-hate selves. Their lightning bug was the most unappetizing toy ever. Their inability to understand what children might like, enjoy, or be able to eat without injuring themselves was non-existent. And they were felled by a slightly uneven floor, then tried to blame their problems on everything but Murphy’s law. Yes, when it came right down to it, Brandon (the chef they fought for, in a storyline that the show could have turned into a nice piece of bitter irony were it at all competent) spilled their food all over the floor after he hit a bump with their cart. So they were left with flavorless kabobs. But it’s not like the kids would have been kabob freaks with the proper flavor profile. Not with meatballs around.
Because, as it turns out, Joey has abruptly turned into the greatest chef ever, at least when it comes to meatballs, and the children carried him on their shoulders into the penultimate episode (though I have a hard time seeing him outlasting the other three, if only because the producers are going to want a woman in the final three, and Stephenie’s the only other one I could see being cut). Despite Joey’s inability to design an anthropomorphic meatball or a stuffed troll grandma or ANYthing the kids might have enjoyed other than whatever the hell that board game was, his meatballs were a hit with both the kids and Sophie, and he won the challenge in a landslide. Where’s this guy been hiding all this time?
In the end, though, the episode worked because of Sophie, who’s one of my new favorite incidental reality show characters ever. I know that she was only tossed in there because Flay was starting to lose interest and the producers figured they could pique it again by letting him hang out with family, but I loved the way she so casually dismissed contestants or let them know that she was not fucking impressed with them just because they were on TV. I’m sure that her parents are trying to limit her exposure or whatever, but if this show gets a second season, could she host it? Because a young teenager stomping on grown men’s dreams and cackling insincerely when they try to make her laugh could be the greatest thing ever, no? That’s just what this show—nay, this GENRE—needs.
- After reading this week’s inventory on reality show clichés that never need to be seen again, see if you can spot just how many this show utilizes!
- There was a point in this week’s episode when my wife shrieked at the TV, “STOP SAYING, ‘TURKEY’!” I concur, honey.
- Casual food restaurant idea I’m surprised hasn’t taken off: breakfast foods. How is this not a chain on every downtown street corner, open at 6 a.m. on Sundays?