Time Machine Chefs

Time Machine Chefs debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Time Machine Chefs justifies its existence about halfway through the première when it trots out a trio of tiny dogs and reveals they will be placed inside hamster-wheel devices to turn meat on spits. This is the kind of historical ephemera and visual spectacle that you expect to see when you look at the TV listings, see something called Time Machine Chefs, and go, “Huh, sure, that could be interesting.”

If the title alone didn’t make the premise clear, this is a cooking show with a time-travel twist. Four celebrity chefs jump into a make-believe time machine, emerge in a carefully staged recreation of some historic time and place, and cook using nothing but authentic tools and ingredients. The rest of the show is boilerplate cooking competition, lifted directly from Top Chef with minimal to no effort at concealing its source.

It’s a gimmick, obviously, but a gimmick whose time has come, given the popularity of historical and fantasy costume dramas like Spartacus, Game Of Thrones, and even Downton Abbey. OK, so there can’t be many people watching those shows and wondering how the eggs were prepared, but there is an all-time high level of interest in olden times. And it’s a lot cheaper to whip up a reality show to jump on that wagon than a costume drama of your own, right? None of that should be construed as condemnation, because as far as gimmicky cooking shows go, this gimmick is as good as it gets. No one needs another show based on chefs getting yelled at (get a job in a kitchen if you want to see that), but who doesn’t want to watch the hell out of someone cooking peacock over an open fire, just like the servants of Tudor kings did?

The four chefs are Ilan Hall, Chris Cosentino, Art Smith, and Julie Davie, all veterans of reality TV cooking and its shows. No doubt all of them are chefs of the highest caliber, but the emphasis here is packing as much personality as possible into every moment on screen. The upside of this is that they all get some good lines, from Cosentino admitting he’s stoked about the Tudor-era challenge because of his history of playing Dungeons & Dragons, to Smith getting off a couple of nice double entendres. The downside is it comes off a bit manic, to the point where it feels like they’re all mugging for the camera. If ever a comedy troupe needed a straight man for the clowns to play off of, it’s this one; but who wants that thankless role when there’s camera time to monopolize? No one in this crew, that’s for certain.

Similar issues arise in the production, particularly the Doctor Who-esque refrigerator time machine and clunky effects. Brooke Peterson as the hostess is bland and forgettable, but perhaps the bar has just been set too high by the elegance and charisma of Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi. The judges’ table offers Nancy Silverton and Dave Arnold, who are functional if perfunctory, and the flamboyant Silvena Rowe, who seems intent on being more over the top than the contestants. It all adds up to the show constantly trying too hard. That’s a shame, because honestly, when your cooking show can drop science like a cockentrice—a Tudor dish made by combining pieces of multiple animals into one fantastical meat-beast—you don’t need to try so damn hard.

Time Machine Chefs shines when it’s casually illuminating old-timey traditions like that or showing master chefs blowing on a duck’s ass to inflate it so they can crisp the skin. That’s good TV. They also get high marks for authenticity, because the chefs don’t even get to pack a decent knife to take along (hey, at least they don’t have to time-travel naked, à la The Terminator). The reliance on clumsy tools and unreliable heat sources—at one point, a chef is trying to start a fire with a hunk of flint!—is the heart of the show and adds a hefty element of challenge.

Or rather, it would if the whole competition element didn’t seem staged and anti-climactic. Take that less as an accusation of a fix and more as a suggestion that it hardly matters who won. Watching the chefs struggle with a mortar and pestle or try to break open a sheep’s skull with bare hands is its own reward. The “competition” seemed pointless, even counterproductive, to the main draw of, “ Let’s watch these highly trained pros cook without so much as a wisk at hand!” Eliminating a chef after the first round, of only two, seemed particularly egregious. It did reduce the outrageous mugging by 20 percent or more, so it’s hard to complain too much. When the show ended and a winner was chosen, it felt arbitrary, giving the sense of “Well, these shows always have a winner, so we also have a winner” without any kind of progression toward victory.

All that said, it’s worth the watch, and being picked up. The two eras visited—the Ming Dynasty circa 1416 and Tudor era circa 1526—barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. Let’s see an authentic Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast, or a Roman bacchanal! How about the episode where they make pemmican with a modern twist? The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but there has to be plenty more historical oddities, like those hamster-wheel running dogs, just waiting to be made into TV gold, or at least silver. If they can tone things down a notch and focus on what’s really interesting here—i.e. the central conceit of modern chefs in historical situations—ABC could have a solid niche winner on its hands.

Stray observations:

  • Peacock is notoriously difficult to cook, we learn.
  • Chris Cosentino really loves brains, maybe to an unhealthy degree. If there’s ever a zombie cooking show, he’s the guy to get.
  • Jill Davie names her ducks before cooking them, which is more than a little creepy.
  • Ilan Hall admits that he has weird man boobs.
  • Compared to the Tudor era, the Ming Dynasty was kind of a letdown. It did offer the duck-inflation, though, so that made it worthwhile.