(My apologies for the lateness of this write-up. The president’s address on the death of Osama Bin Laden meant America’s Next Great Restaurant did not air on my coast, and I had to wait for it to go up online.—TV)
Jamawn won America’s Next Great Restaurant. Soul Daddy will open its doors in New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis today, and we will presumably never hear of it again. The food looks pretty great, but I have trouble believing an anemically rated reality show is going to be the proper platform to launch a health-conscious soul food restaurant, which just sounds like Jamawn’s original idea with all of the fun stripped out of it, replaced by investors who never knew what they wanted and just kept shrugging. Jamawn mostly won because he was the perfect blend of the other two competitors. His concept wasn’t as broadly appealing as Joey’s, but it also was much more appealing than Sudhir’s. And his restaurant was run much more efficiently than Joey’s, but not quite as efficiently as Sudhir’s. (In case you don’t follow Sudhir on Twitter—and why would you?—he actually won the silver coin vote for the finale, so top-notch was Spice Coast.) In retrospect, it should have been obvious Jamawn would win since Eric was eliminated, but the show did a moderately good job of disguising his lead via editing.
Really, that’s all this recap even needs to be. The show wasn’t as bad as last week’s episode, but it wasn’t anywhere near the promise of the earlier episodes either. I’ve been noticing, more and more frequently, that the reality shows I watch seem to start off with big, bold excitement, then peter off as the season goes on, finally ending with a big shrug. This was true of the latest edition of Top Chef, and it seemed to be true of Amazing Race (before that show righted itself last night). The tricks of the reality show trade are so transparent at this point that almost anyone who’s seen a reality show before will be able to spot them straight off. This means that nearly everything involved in making a successful show involves casting, and America’s Next Great Restaurant had pretty dismal casting.
Continuing with their desperate attempts to drum up any emotional response whatsoever, the producers go for the hard sell of Jamawn tonight, in a way that attempts to make him seem like a come from behind underdog or something. There’s even a segment where two of his employees speak of him in glowingly beatific terms, and there’s a talking head where his father talks about how proud he is of his son. The show, perhaps realizing that it’s failed to make any of its non-loathsome contestants interesting as anything other than the people you were rooting for just so one of the stupid and/or awful people didn’t win, frantically layered on the “Jamawn is awesome!” talk so early and often tonight that the actual announcement of his name played as an incredible anticlimax. It was as if the show was saying, “Sure, Sudhir is incredibly competent and has some interesting ideas to go along with his crippling Chipotle fetish, and it would be kind of fun to see just how poorly Joey would screw up a major restaurant franchise, but Jamawn is a GOOD GUY and a FAMILY MAN.” To be fair, the show was trying to make this point before, but it all but stuck him up on the wall and bathed him in soft light while he tossed his long luxurious hair tonight. It was as blatant an attempt to set up a reality show contestant as the winner as I’ve ever seen.
The actual challenge was surprisingly involving, given that this show has been flubbing the challenges for weeks now. Perhaps that’s because the show turned to the challenge it should have been doing in week four or five, having the contestants open up actual mini restaurants in Los Angeles. The biggest problem with America’s Next Great Restaurant was that it could never quite figure out the “restaurant” part of the show, and so it just ended up being yet another cooking competition show. The fun of the early episodes was in the investors and contestants nailing down their concepts, but after that, the show all but abandoned the restaurant idea to chase a bunch of random challenges and occasionally turn the contestants into fashion designers or something. The last several weeks have consisted of the show all but saying, “Fuck it! Food trucks!,” “Fuck it! Kids!,” and “Fuck it! Vegas!” in response to figuring out a way to stretch this show out, when it COULD have been showing us the contestants preparing menus, designing warm interior spaces, and working with employees. The best parts of EVERY EPISODE have dealt with these sorts of ideas, largely because that’s something you don’t get on other shows. Moments like Sudhir rattling off the cost of his food truck food, Stephenie having no idea where her food came from, or Joey utterly botching being a manager were the sorts of moments you didn’t get on other reality shows. But they were few and far between.
Instead of leaning heavily on the actual nuts and bolts of the restaurant industry, then, the show decided to lean on personality and hope that would carry it through the cooking challenges. This was a problem because so many of the contestants made for pretty dull television. Greg and Krystal were fun to sneer at, and Alex seemed to enjoy being the villain, but the show didn’t have any strong personalities in the business center. Nor did it have strong personalities on the judging panel. When you consider that Steve Ells, a man who has almost certainly convinced a good portion of the country that David Icke was right all along, was probably the strongest character on the show, next to a teenage girl who appeared for about five minutes in one episode, you get a sense of just how thoroughly lost the show was.
It tried to compensate by overloading on Joey being either heartfelt about how much he loves Italian food and/or being a big, dumb galoot. (My wife informs me that in his real life, Joey is a financial advisor, which seemingly explains nearly everything about what’s wrong with this country’s economy in one sentence.) But Joey didn’t come off as genuine enough to inspire passion or stupid enough to inspire laughter. He was just the guy the camera kept focusing on because the producers figured we’d like a goofy Italian guy who didn’t seem to understand basic finance, concepts of management, or the most rudimentary underpinnings of a service economy. Joey might have been an amazing cook (his meatballs looked pretty good), but he failed as the centerpiece of the show. (A cursory glance at Twitter suggests the few people still watching the show think Sudhir was robbed.) And we never got a good sense of just WHY he failed so constantly. Tonight, it sure seems like he hired the woman who singlehandedly destroyed his chances at winning (if, indeed, those chances existed) either because she was kind of cute or because she said she was a “team player” and that was a magic phrase he had been instructed to listen for while talking to these friendly people who kept asking him if they could work with him.
In the end, “Opening Night” was everything that worked and didn’t work about America’s Next Great Restaurant rolled up into one. It featured a surprisingly involving challenge that FINALLY delved into some of the business questions of running a restaurant (even if it remains unclear just what the price point is going to be for any of these places), but it was undermined by a sense that none of these people were anything but cogs in a machine the producers kept banging at in an attempt to get it to restart. It was filled with lots and lots and lots of talk, desperate attempts to evoke emotion, and a final segment where Bobby Flay couldn’t have seemed more bored to be showing Jamawn his new restaurant. The best reality shows reduce people to stereotypes—big, dumb Italian guy; super-smart but unprepared young woman; warm, loving family man—but also suggest who they might be in real life, beyond the TV personas they’ve had thrust upon them. But any time the contestants on America’s Next Great Restaurant seemed to suggest who they were off-camera—such as when Joey came alive when surrounded by his family or when Sudhir engaged in weirdly distant yet loving banter with his sister and friends—the show signified just how little it understood of the people on it or what it was trying to do. It was a show that was supposed to be all about soul and love of food, yet it ended up mostly being about a bunch of pasty white men arguing with each other.
But I’m still going to eat at Soul Daddy. At least once.
- Your assignment: This show is never going to come back for another season, but let’s pretend it will. What improvements would you make in a season two?
- Nearly every restaurant design seemed like Ells just had five or six spare Chipotles laying around in his garage, and he was happy to loan them out with a new coat of paint.
- I don’t know if you follow the various contestants on Twitter, but they all often seem incredibly unhappy with the editing on the show, more so than contestants on these shows usually seem. Sure, reality shows are incredibly manipulated to present a certain narrative, but on this one, the desperation and the seams really showed.