I have to say that headed into the finale of this episode, I didn't think the series would ditch Stephenie. Yes, she's incredibly confused about what she's doing (though I have to wonder how much of that was handed to her by the judges constantly changing their particular mission for her on a whim), and yes, she seemed to have done a poor job of training her employees. And yes, if we made it to next week with her, she just would have been a sacrificial lamb to either Jamawn or Sudhir. But for God's sake, Joey? That's what we're going with? This is what happens when you get to the last few episodes with the big lug you've been toting around for laughs and then you realize you've brought him all the way to the finale, Magical Elves. It seemed fun a few weeks ago, I'm sure, but now we have to confront the fact that Joey could actually win this thing.
I know, I know. Nightmare scenario. But hear me out here. The other two concepts have pretty big weaknesses if you're seriously going to try and take them nationwide. Spice Coast would probably do fairly well in college towns and major urban centers, but it's hard to see it making the jump out to smaller cities and suburbs like Chipotle has. (Then again, I'm sure Steve Ells would pull me aside, give me a smug little smile, then insist they said that about Chipotle at one time, too, and he ate them.) Soul Daddy seems like it would have broader appeal, but at the same time, I'm not sure what the fast-casual menu for a place like that would look like. Brooklyn Meatball Company, God help me, is the sort of thing that would have broad appeal AND a pretty easily established menu filled with staples many, many Americans know and love. And apparently Joey's food is good or something. What I'm saying is, WE COULD ALL HAVE TO STARE AT HIS FACE UNTIL THE RESTAURANT INEVITABLY FAILS.
In good news, however, the winning restaurant will be located at the Hollywood/Highland center, which means that I will, at least, get to eat there once (and probably only once). This series hasn't been nearly the huge platform for the restaurant everybody on the series probably hoped it would be, so I can't imagine the whole thing taking off in any way, shape, or form. So that's why it's nice I'll get to eat there once, because if nothing else, this series has made me curious as to just what that food would taste like. (Look, I didn't say this was good news for ALL of us, did I?)
Because, honestly, this was another big, fat snooze of an episode, without even the wacky shenanigans of last week's, “Fuck it! Make a toy!” challenge. And this episode simultaneously pointed out the biggest problem with the series since about week three or four: There's plenty of drama in the world of putting together a winning restaurant concept. There's plenty of interesting stuff to see in the course of doing that. We have seen absolutely none of those things, however! The drama we've seen has been from a fourth-rate Top Chef knockoff, and once we got past the first few weeks of the show, it should have been clear who was a good cook and who was not. We should have gotten to know the chefs better. We should have actually spent time watching the contestants try to nail down a menu, try to come up with a budget, hire employees. Instead, pretty much all of that has either been shunted off to the side or crammed into this episode, which is the least satisfying yet.
The contestants go to Las Vegas tonight because that's what you do when you're coming up on the end of a reality show and the producers don't know what else to do. It's not immediately clear what Vegas adds to the show. It's just a new setting, designed to distract us from the endless, endless recapping the show is doing of itself now. (If I were a more diligent recapper and recapped this recapping, would the world end?) Everybody's supposed to hire two employees who will do most of the work, while the contestants hang back. Theoretically, this is a good idea, but we don't get to spend a ton of time watching the contestants train their employees, which means that when we see Stephenie screw up the training, so that her employees apparently have no idea what “fusion” means (though it's not like the judges ever cared to ask Stephenie the question of what she was fusing Mediterranean with). We also don't get a good sense of why Sudhir's employee training techniques are so much more effective.
I'm not saying that I need to see all of this, but it would at least be a nice break from the slog of seeing the same challenge remixed over and over and over. This is a show that's been stuck in the same gear all this time, and neither the change of venue, nor the simple fact that it's coming to an end can rouse it from its sleepy state. Tonight's challenge seemed particularly pointless, simply because it was, once again, based on the food (for the most part, since Joey apparently had the worst food and didn't go home). Therefore, it was obvious that Jamawn and Sudhir would be safe, while Stephenie and Joey would struggle. Stephenie started out seeming like the most confident person in the competition and has gradually gotten dragged down by second guessing and uncertainty, almost all brought upon by the judges constantly asking her to focus her concept more and the concept becoming more and more unfocused as it went. The first move—to a Mediterranean concept—seemed like it might have worked, but as time has gone on, the judges have tried to push her in directions she didn't want to go. It's not all their fault, of course. Stephenie's apparent inability to understand that, well, some people would like to eat a sandwich was puzzling, and her inability to do anything with the food truck was odd as well. But it often seemed like the judges were there this season simply to take away any confidence any of the contestants had. If the contestants stuck to their guns, they were eliminated. If they did what the judges said, they were eliminated. The three that remain all had the dumb luck to hang on through good food, mostly.
At this point, I'm only watching America's Next Great Restaurant out of a sense of obligation. Yeah, I'm reviewing it, but there's also the fact that I've come this far, dammit. I still think this was a show that opened with a great deal of promise, but week after week, it's been shown to be emptier and emptier, hollower and hollower. Magical Elves usually does such a good job at varying the formula just enough to keep you from realizing that it's a formula that the utter failure of the producers to do so here seems all the stranger, as though everybody making the show stopped trying five or six episodes ago. Periodically, something amusing will happen to perk up my attention, but the show's been, sadly, a failure overall.