Hotel Hell

Hotel Hell debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox.

Vermont’s Juniper Hill Inn, the first destination for Hotel Hell, is so much more than a big, empty hotel: There’s an RV outside, a pen full of pigs, a basement that would make Take Shelter drool, and five shipping containers just waiting for Antiques Roadshow. As such, the Hotel Hell première is a gypsy wedding away from the reality-television grand slam. It does, however, contain salty personalities, home renovation, hoarding, intervention, Gordon Ramsay soaking in a bathtub. The Juniper Hill is so crammed with tropes that it takes Gordon two whole episodes to rehabilitate it. So why is the show so empty?

It’s difficult not to draw an analogy between the première’s subject (a mismanaged hotel whose owner is distracted into self-satisfaction by a worthless art collection) and Hotel Hell (a gilded reality schadenfreude piece packed with meaningless incident) itself. Even the title is a bait-and-switch, unless Hell is now Gordon Ramsay’s official province. Hotel Hell suggests cockroach-infested rooms and black-light pollacks shrugged off by the grizzled, hook-handed concierge, whereas Juniper Hill is instead mired in the Kafkaesque torment of an arbitrary paycheck schedule and a brand of manager snobbery so agonizing that only Dante himself could find the words to condemn it. Robert the owner doesn’t communicate with his staff, he comps his friends without tipping, and he hides in his RV with his boyfriend Ari, a stern Finn whose dialogue is subtitled—except when it truly needs it. There’s a 70-year-old server whose last paycheck was $48, a former head chef who was rarely reimbursed for the produce she paid for, and a new head chef who has so mastered the Robert style of management that he serves uncooked lamb and can’t communicate with his sous chef. The inn, by the way, is losing $200,000 a year.

Enter Gordon Ramsay, whose facility with a bleep ought to whip this place into shape even if it does take twice as long as the average Tabatha’s Salon Takeover. And it does! By the end of the second episode, the inn is buzzing with life. What starts as a Queen Of Versailles document of the drowning wealthy becomes a lesson in self-help as Robert finds it in himself (with help from the lovely people under Gordon’s supervision) to turn this ship around. How does he manage this spectacular feat? I don’t know—most of that happens during the commercial break.

Hotel Hell is so good at stating the precarious financial status of Juniper Hill—not that it takes a real exposé or anything—that the solutions, when they are presented for audience approval, feel like empty gestures. Yes, Gordon fixes a plumbing issue (offscreen), redecorates the lobby, and has the chef redesign the menu, all of which are lasting structural fixes. But the smooth operations require an interpersonal honesty that isn’t achieved just because Gordon makes Robert apologize to his staff. And yes, at every moment of conflict, Gordon must puppeteer the apologies and reconciliations because he's the only responsible one. Robert says all the right things at the end, boilerplate stuff about finally realizing how serious it is and how even the lowly peons who work for him are people too, but how difficult is it to be magnanimous now that Gordon Ramsay got everything functioning again?

Even in the middle of the big re-opening party at the brand-new bar in Juniper Hill, Ari snaps at a subordinate who correctly admonishes him for letting his dog walk through the dining room. She goes to her room to cry, Gordon asks her to come downstairs, and she does. It takes nothing. Next Gordon asks Ari to apologize to her. He takes her off to a side room and won’t let her get a word in edgewise. Problem solved! Fawlty Towers has more functional relationships.

Hotel Hell would mostly benefit from some transparency. When Gordon arrives for the first time, the inside camera makes the sight of his fumbling with the locked front door feel pretty staged. One wonders whether the payment problems are overstated—though they are the first thing every member of the staff brings up—because it’s hard to believe anyone still works there. How long is Gordon’s visit? What brings those patrons to the surprise re-opening? How much money did Gordon infuse into this business? Are the bathtub shots really necessary?

Maybe Hotel Hell isn’t really about the rehabilitation of bad hotels. Like much contemporary pop culture, it’s certainly a show that finds pleasure in the misfortune of the would-be rich. And Gordon keeps making a point of how valuable workers are. “If they quit, you are fucked,” he tells Robert. Hotel Hell is this close to an inside-the-system 99 percent tract for reform. But it’s all so schematic. It starts in a hole, and Gordon leads everyone to a place where they can see light at the end of the tunnel. When Robert apologizes to his staff, before producing anything beyond his words as proof of his commitment, everyone’s hopeful and hugs afterward, because the American workplace is a family, even if the workers are financially abused.  The worst part is just before the end, when Robert pulls aside his estate manager Ryan—a man who is so eager to show Gordon Robert’s worthless piles of shit in the beginning—and gives him his month-late paycheck with a $100 bonus. Ryan says in confessional, “I haven’t been that emotionally moved in a long time.” What a happy ending.

Stray observations:

  • The highlight is probably a scene where Gordon brings an auction-house appraiser to assess Robert’s antique collection. Robert claims it should go for about $300,000, and Gordon has pushed him to a point where he seems willing to sell it in order to finance the hotel. The appraiser deflates him like a ninja. Regarding a painting that Ari had previously extolled to a totally bored dinner party, the appraiser says, “The painting is a copy, and not a good one, I’m afraid.”
  • Robert tells Gordon, “We haven’t identified the appropriate people to come here.” “Appropriate people?” “People who can afford $59 for three courses.” I know I’m playing right into Hotel Hell’s hands by appreciating the schadenfreude provided by Robert, but it doesn’t help that he sounds like Dylan Baker.
  • I’m not exaggerating the class focus. As Gordon intones about Robert’s pets, “The pigs live a life of luxury while everyone around them suffers. Sounds strangely familiar.”
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