Hell's Kitchen: “Eighteen Chefs Compete”
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Hell's Kitchen: “Eighteen Chefs Compete”

Summer means many things to different people, but to the programming chiefs at Fox, it means Gordon Ramsay, Gordon Ramsay, Gordon Ramsay until you bust. Ramsay’s first American TV show, the U.S. version of Hell’s Kitchen, premiered in 2005, too late to make it onto the Beach Boys’ seasonal checklist, which is a great shame for anyone who wishes that Brian Wilson had written a song that required Mike Love and Al Jardine to loudly address each other as “Donkey!”, a select group from which I cannot, in all honesty, exempt myself. Now that that nonsense about celebrating the Queen’s 60th year on the throne is over, Fox invites us to kick back and recognize a real anniversary of note: the premiere of Hell’s Kitchen’s tenth season. I’m not sure how the show got to 10 seasons in seven years; I guess it must have squeezed in a few extra seasons during other times of the year, but the thought of Gordon Ramsay screaming at people and ordering them out of his prop kitchen in the winter or fall feels like some violation of natural law. Tonight’s premiere is followed by the season premiere of MasterChef, which is on two nights a week. People used to complain that workaholic country musicians like Merle Haggard devalued their talent by putting out too much product, but compared to Ramsay, Hag was about as overexposed as Terrence Malick.

I’ll be reviewing this season’s run of MasterChef starting tomorrow night, so here’s hoping that show (where Ramsay is balanced out by the much more saturnine Joe Bastianich and the nicer but far less telegenic Graham Eliot) still has some gas in it. Hell’s Kitchen has been running on fumes for years, and the opening of tonight’s episode doesn’t provide much in the way of hope that its formula is ever going to be rethought in any meaningful way. The announcer promises that this season’s competition will be “the most physical yet,” with the contestants “fighting” in the kitchen, in the dorm, and in the parking lot. The general atmosphere of hostility and hysteria is punched up with an overheated montage, showing Ramsay seething while people get up in each other’s faces and using such endearments as “stupid bitch,” to accompaniment of a paparazzi-style clicking noise; the whole thing is reminiscent of one of those scenes from a spy movie where some patsy is made to watch a film that’s designed to click a switch in his brain that will make taking a shot at the president seem like a capital idea. Part of the point of the footage shown seems to be to suggest that, if we hang in there long enough, we’ll get to see one especially obnoxious chef get popped in the nose. Hell’s Kitchen isn’t exactly flameout night at the demolition derby, but it’s become surprisingly unapologetic about the fact that the its only way of entertaining an audience is to show people who aren’t likable or good at what they do get cursed out and humiliated on TV.

Some people, notably Anthony Bourdain, have pointed out that the pathetic, incompetent schlubs featured on the show are people Ramsay wouldn’t hire himself in a million years. This criticism may have finally gotten to Gordo, because this time, the announcer says, he’s “putting his reputation,” or what’s left of it, “on the line;” the winner will be given the position of head chef at a restaurant with his name on it, Gordon Ramsay Steak, at Paris Las Vegas. Ramsay must be planning to burn the joint down for the insurance money, because there’s nobody here any reputable restaurateur would want agree to have on his payroll; the contestants this season may be the sorriest lot in the history of the series. If you squint, you can detect reasons for their presence on the show, though in most cases, their food has nothing to do with it. There’s an enormous fellow whose name—his first name, mind you—is Clemenza, who suffers a coughing fit during the opening competition between the men and the women to select the best signature dishes. There’s an asshole who all but guarantees that he’ll flame out when the pressure is on by saying things like, “Chef Ramsay’s going to like me. Everything I cook is delicious.”

There’s a woman built like a mountain who does nothing memorable in the kitchen but who does stellar work in the individual interview snippets, saying things like “Are you [bleep!]ing kidding me!?” in a voice that an actor playing King Lear would hold in reserve until the storm scene on the Heath. (At least most of what she says meets broadcast standards. Another woman sums up one her teammate’s contribution with the deeply felt observation, “This is so [bleep! bleep! bleep!] Wow!”) The obvious sacrificial lamb is a guy who looks to be in his mid-30s who astonishes Ramsay by revealing that he, in fact, a 22-year-old executive chef. Ramsay calls his signature dish “rancid,” after which he spends the rest of the episode going through the paces in what looks like a depressive funk, just killing time while waiting for someone to hoist him up by the noose hanging around his neck.

You sort of wonder if the production team offered to get him some help after they were done with him, but who can say how much of this impression is the work of the editor? The show has always gone in for a lot of sweetening, in the form of editing choices, music cues, and even staged scenes, but with an especially dull cast of chefs, it has really outdone itself this year. When one chef says that he’s from Texas, shitkicker music is heard; when the show wants to suggest that everyone is too poleaxed to react effectively to a situation, crickets start chirping. When one contestant says that winning the prize would be the cat’s meow, a goddamn cat is heard meowing. Someone must have lost a bet that required them to stoop to that one. The most offensive thing is the way the fat guy's coughing fit is emphasized in the editing. As it is, the whole thing could have been cut out, and you wouldn't be missing a thing, but instead, the show practically invites you to make book at what exact point he's going to keel over.

When dinner service rolls around, the announcer brags that the place is “fully booked” by Los Angelenos who want the chance to take part in the 10th-season “grand opening.” Seriously, where do the producers get the diners on this show, and do they have the decency to drive them to Taco Bell afterward? Who in Los Angeles has nothing better to do in the evening than spend a couple of hours cooling their jets and listening to their stomachs rumbling while waiting to listen to the sweet music of Gordon Ramsay’s voice shouting, “Shut it down!” (There is one apparent celebrity sighting: The camera picks out some guy at a table and identifies him as “Leigh Broddon, Pro Football Player.” I’m sure he’s great at what he does, but I’d have identified him as “Douchebag Who Wears His Sunglasses Indoors After Dark.”) Tonight, the women’s team emerges triumphant, because they manage to at least complete their appetizers, while the men don’t manage to feed nobody nothing. But if previous seasons of Hell’s Kitchen have taught us anything, it’s that there will be no pattern you can look for in the weekly series of wins and defeats, because most of the chefs are so maladroit that the whole thing really is a crap shoot. So there’s that.

Stray observation:

  • For my money, the most winning of the contestants, at first glance anyway, promises to be Guy, a former Israeli drill sergeant who bombs out in the signature dish competition, telling Ramsay that he screwed up his food and urging him to do them both a favor and just not bother tasting it. At least he’s not deceived about the quality of his own work. When the most self-deluded asshole on his team blames him for his own poor performance during the eliminations, Guy shakes his head at the balls on this character and says that not only did he throw him under the bus, but he then sent a fleet of trucks “and a train to go over me too.” If you’re going to invoke the hoariest cliché in use right now, you might as well dress it up enough to make it your own.

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