Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT.
Getting fat is fun. It's the easiest thing in the world. And it feels so damned good at the time too. There are few feelings more satisfying than having a big plate of a food you love and scarfing it all down. You might feel sick after, but in the moment, your body's evolutionary prerogative is to eat as much of that shit as possible. You never know when you might get a big feast like that again. On the flip side, ending being fat is a big pain. It's hard as hell, and the only reward you get is sort of a good feeling about yourself. Once you get to the place where you've lost a lot of weight, yeah, you feel pretty damn proud of yourself, but when you start out, that reward seems a lot more nebulous than a big plate of barbecue sittings right in front of you.
The fact that Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution captures that struggle so accurately is what makes it one of the best reality shows to come along in years. This is cut straight out of the heartwarming cloth that the ABC network has made its bread and butter in the reality genre for a few years now, but unlike Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or its ilk, there are few easy answers on this show. The title character - a British chef who's come to our shores to promote healthy living in a similar way to how he did so in the UK - comes up against a lot of failure, and there are times when you think he'll never succeed in what he's trying to do. By the end of tonight's two-hour premiere, the smallest of victories will seem positively massive.
Food Revolution works because it blends that heartwarming approach with something very like the documentary miniseries that Sundance airs every so often. The documentary miniseries is a hard format to crack. It needs to have just enough of a reality TV-esque approach to have individual episodes, but its soul needs to have some of that big screen cinema verite feel to it. And, yeah, there are points in Food Revolution where I questioned the timing of what was happening. (Let's just say that Oliver seems to cram way, way more into a week than any human being should be able to.) But for the most part, Food Revolution has a lot of respect for its host and what he's trying to do and the people he's trying to help.
This is sort of a surprise. The setting for the series is Huntington, West Virginia, home of the least healthy population of people in the United States. Considering how often West Virginians are written off as hillbilly stereotypes and considering how often overweight people are simply there for the audience to mock on shows like this, there's a minefield to navigate here. But Food Revolution does a good job of articulating all of the reasons these people got fat and all of the reasons they stay fat, including everything from confusing government regulations that make it easier to give kids processed crap at school lunches than meals prepared from fresh ingredients to the fact that having lots of frozen foods just makes it easier to prepare food when you're a house with two working parents.
Oliver touched off some controversy when he was in Huntington. His methods, which involved taking over the lunch program at one local elementary school, ran up against the fact that preparing lots of lunch for lots of kids ends up creating situations where it's just easier to go with what's in the big frozen boxes. This is not to mention the fact that it's usually just easier to order the processed crap because the processed crap has been specifically packaged by giant food companies to meet certain government regulations and guidelines, guidelines that Oliver's prepared food can't always meet, leading to a memorable moment when he wheels out a bunch of hamburger buns to go with a painstakingly crafted meal of chicken and rice, so the kids can have two servings of bread. To the series' credit, neither Oliver nor the lunch ladies he works with are portrayed as wholly right or wholly wrong. Oliver clearly has a passion to help people eat more healthily, but the lunch ladies both have valid concerns about having enough time to make such good food and about Oliver being some out-of-town guy who will just look down on them. (There's a moment late in the first hour where a newspaper interview with Oliver comes out and threatens to derail the nascent relationships he's building with these people, and it's as fraught with tension a moment as I can think of in a show like this.)
Food Revolution isn't perfect. The editing sometimes seems a bit tricksy, and there are a few moments when it seems almost impossible for the show to have caught reactions without some editing trickery. (I refuse to believe that not a one first grader in Huntington could have told Oliver what a tomato was.) And if you resist being manipulated in any way, then this show is going to rub you the wrong way. All it is is manipulation, a guy who's putting his heart on his sleeve to get both his countrymen and ours to eat better but keeps getting that heart trampled at every turn. (Hell, there's even a shot of his baby daughter saying, "Bye, Daddy" as he leaves for the U.S., as if a British-accent-inflected toddler isn't the cutest, most manipulative thing ever.)
But this show also has a respect at its core that carries it a long way. When Oliver wanders into a local Southern Baptist church, it's not so the show can poke fun, but, rather, so Oliver can commiserate with a local pastor who feels it's his duty to get the people of his town to be healthier. When Oliver goes to visit a family where all of the children are at risk for diabetes, his overwhelming concern for the kids and his desire to help a busy mom prepare simple but healthy meals practically emanates from the screen. And when Oliver dresses up as a pod of peas and lets the children of the school chase him around, it somehow feels more charming than cloying. Oliver's winning personality goes a long way toward making all of this work, but so does the show's willingness to slow its pace down, to let things play out.
If nothing else, I like that Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution takes a complex issue - the myriad of reasons that people in the U.S. (and, Oliver frequently points out, the U.K.) are fat and getting fatter - and breaks it down into the easily digestible grammar of reality television. At the same time, though, it never reduces its ideas to anything less than what they are. It's a show that could have been simplistic and simple-minded but is instead complex and willing to engage with big questions and grapple with just what it will take to turn a nation of over-eaters into a nation of people who can moderate themselves better, who can override those evolutionary impulses.
And I know how hard that is. I was 50 pounds heavier than I am today a year ago, and I still have a long way to go. It'd be easy to give up, to simply just go nuts. After all, I don't have my own Jamie Oliver to talk me down when all I want is a giant bucket of buffalo wings. But having the guy on TV, having his relentless positivity and belief that he can change the world by, say, dressing up like a pea pod almost makes it feel as though I do. Very few reality TV shows are about attempting to build a better world, a more sustainable community. This one is, and it's one of the best I've seen.