I think the term "guilty pleasure" has kind of been abused in recent years, turned into sort of a shame-faced phrase. Most people use it to denote something they objectively know is terrible but very much enjoy. And yet, much of the time, when people name something their guilty pleasure, it's something that's actually pretty close to a legitimate pleasure. For example, a friend called Mean Girls one of his "guilty pleasure" movies for the decade, but Mean Girls was fairly well-reviewed, was quite popular and spawned a number of fairly big careers (though if you time traveled to 2004 and told them Lindsay Lohan would be the cast member with the LEAST alive career in five years' time, they would have laughed at you). I suppose it's the fact that he's a guy, and we dudes aren't supposed to like Mean Girls, but I had another friend lean across the table and tell me that HER guilty pleasure was Lost a few years ago. It's like the words have lost all meaning whatsoever.
So when I say Travel Channel's Man Vs. Food is my guilty pleasure, what I'm saying is that I think the show is fairly well-executed but doesn't seem to have a great deal of redeeming social value in any way whatsoever. Man Vs. Food is about the pleasures of pigging out, and those are pleasures we're all supposed to have realized are strictly forbidden once we emerge from adolescence. Sadly, as looking around any American public place or as looking in the mirror will show, very few of us have gotten the message. Pigging out is fun. Traveling to weird places and trying the local restaurants is fun. Eating vicariously via a generally agreeable guy who puts me in mind of what I might be like if I had a television career is fun. So I couldn't classify Man Vs. Food as so-bad-it's-good, and I guess that won't make it a guilty pleasure under whatever your rubric might be. But I do think it's one of the better executed shows of its type out there, and it's one that I just enjoy watching every week.
I write this because the series just ended another season, one in which it became one of Travel Channel's flagship shows. I hadn't watched the series before it started up again this year, but it's quickly become one of my TV palate cleansers, a show I can turn to when I just need to let my mind completely go blank for a half hour before embarking on whatever else I have to do. On the other hand, if I hadn't heard of this show until this year, it's possible you haven't either, so I'll describe it in brief. Host Adam Richman travels the U.S., stopping in at famed pig-out spots in various cities. He'll visit two or three local restaurants before settling in for a local eating challenge that few have managed to conquer. Much of the time, he fails to win the day, but occasionally, he pulls off a victory, and whatever crowd he's assembled at the location cheers madly. Oh and, also, the credits bumpers feature a man beating the hell out of a drumstick.
In many ways, Man Vs. Food is the perfect show for the Travel Channel, which has evolved into a channel I stop by frequently while surfing, simply because it doesn't seem to have a hard and fast identity. All of its shows have something to do with travel, but it seems to evenly split its time between shows about places you can go to eat lots of fatty foods, places you can go to meet ghosts and cruise ships. Perhaps because Man Vs. Food has been such a success for the channel, the network is running the idea of eating greasebombs into the ground, starting up a new series about the 101 best places to pig out after the first of the year.
Still, Man Vs. Food wouldn't be as enjoyable as it is without Richman's able hosting duties. He's remarkably similar to Food Network's Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is the closest show on TV to Man Vs. Food and is another frequent channel-surfing stop. A little of Fieri tends to go a long way. The guy prances around the roadside inns he finds across the country like he's some sort of magical flavor elf or something, taking food from customers, invading the kitchen and narrating loving close-ups of foodstuffs with barely suppressed hunger. Richman is cut from roughly the same cloth, but he's more laconic and self-critical than Fieri, and that goes a long way toward making this show more than just a travelogue. At some level, we have to be rooting for Man in the Man Vs. Food showdown, and Richman makes it pretty easy to root for him.
The season finale is a fairly prototypical episode of the show. Richman goes to Hartford, Conn., and introduces the fact that he and a partner will be eating a 10-pound stuffed pizza (that looks more like a pot pie) in under an hour, then tours three local eateries, two hot dog joints and one a burger place. The burger place - Ted's - is one I'd heard of before (on the wondrous documentary Hamburger America, which Sundance Channel makes a point of showing every Independence Day), but it's still a kooky little place, featuring burgers that are steamed, not fried or grilled. The hot dog places mostly seemed to serve crazy hot dogs, but Richman's gusto for eating this stuff makes all of it seem more momentous than it actually is.
The challenge, though, is the reason to tune in to any episode of Man Vs. Food. If the thought of watching a man stuff himself silly does not sound like compelling television to you (and I have to admit that it doesn't), you still might give Man Vs. Food a try, simply because the show manages to make what is essentially the same narrative every time surprisingly compelling. Adam starts out strong. Adam keeps pushing. Adam loses his momentum. Then he either regains or completely loses said momentum and either wins or loses the challenge. Half the fun here is seeing just what he's going to have to eat this week and how big and/or spicy it is. Surprisingly, Adam and his partner somehow finish the 10-pound pizza, and the editing makes everything more surprising than it has any right to be, as the partner finishes with 15 minutes to spare, but Adam is slowing down. And then his partner takes some of his pizza off his hands! And they finish it up with only a second to spare!
I'm not going to claim that Man Vs. Food is a great show, a must-see show. I'm not even going to claim that it's a terribly good show. But it's a good example of how TV can take something that should seem completely unappealing (watching a pudgy guy stuff his face) and can make it resoundingly enjoyable simply through good editing, the application of a well-tested premise and a well-chosen host. There's something sneakily charming about Man Vs. Food when all is said and done, and even though every episode is so similar to every other one and I normally say I hate that, I'll still be tuning in for the big live event in February. Call it a guilty pleasure.