(Premieres on Fox tonight, 9pm ET / 8pm CT)
Some people see Gordon Ramsay yelling himself red-faced in TV promos and think of him as a hateful prick stoking the fires of a modern popular culture that increasingly demands public humiliation. But folks, I swear to you Ramsay's here to help. Or maybe I'm buying too much into The Myth Of Ramsay, as advanced in countless magazine profiles and by the hateful prick himself. He's meant to be seen as a man of the people, who turned to cooking after suffering an injury that ruined a promising football career, then rose to the top of the profession by conducting his business like a ruthless entrepreneur, not a sensitive artist. In both Hell's Kitchen and the British version of Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay favors the working man, not the delicate genius. He pushes simplicity, common sense, value, hard work and reliability. He's a bootstrapper.
The American version of Kitchen Nightmares maintains that philosophy, but the packaging is significantly different. In the UK, the formula is simple: Ramsay rolls into a failing restaurant, orders some food, tells the camera why it sucks, then storms into the kitchen to dress down the staff and inspect their stores of rotting food and rusting ovens. Then he goes back to his room and takes his shirt off. Then he has the staff clean the kitchen, restock with fresh ingredients, and design an easier-to-prepare, crowd-pleasing menu. Then he takes to the streets to drum up business, and after a shaky re-start, the staff pulls together, the receipts increase dramatically, and Ramsay rolls off again, trailing a cloud of humbled-but-improved food service drones.
In a rough sense, "Peter's," the first episode of the U.S. Kitchen Nightmares (airing tonight at 9 PM EST on Fox) follows that formula, minus the shirt-removal. But to make it more in line with the demands of Fox television, this lily has been gilded–or at least sprayed with metallic paint. The Hell's Kitchen narrator returns, to tell us what we already know. Sound effects–and even visual effects–have been added to make everything about 30% cutesier. The editing is extra-deceptive, juggling time in ways that make reconciliations look like they happened later than they probably did, and making arguments look more turbulent than Ramsay's barely contained smirk would indicate. And here's the big addition: Ramsay and company pony up the dough to make major cosmetic and infrastructure improvements to their shitheap-of-the-week. (All it costs the proprietors is their soul. Or at least their public image, once the whole country sees how inept a TV crew with a game plan can make them look.)
I'd be lying if I said these kind of manipulations didn't bother me. I gave up on Fox's Nashville after one episode, even though it's about my hometown, and even though it's fairly accurate about the new dynamic among singer-songwriters and wannabe superstars in Music City. The reason? I just couldn't stand the Laguna Beach-style format, which pretends the cameras don't exist, and that we just happen to be watching people live their lives, uninfluenced by the lighting crews and the portable audio packs strapped to their lower backs. I can read between the lines of shows like these, but it's because I can that I wish the producers wouldn't try so hard to hide the strings.
That said, I'd also be lying if I said I didn't find Kitchen Nightmares ridiculously entertaining. The "Peter's" episode in particular is a good place for the new series to start, primarily because of the title character: a quasi-wiseguy who co-owns and works the front of the house at his family's Long Island-located Italian restaurant, and spends almost all of his screen time bullying his staff, threatening his creditors with violence, and spending money from the till on fancy clothes for himself. (That is when he's not swiping a customer's already-late appetizers off the expo line and disappearing into a corner of the kitchen for a snack.)
Is Peter really that bad a guy, or is he playing a part for the sake of the show's asshole-makes-good dramatic arc? Probably a little of both. But that doesn't make it any less exciting or hilarious when he chases one of the guys he owes money to out of the restaurant, yelling, "C'mon you fake tough guy!" while Ramsay hulks in the foreground of the frame, looking awkwardly bemused.
I wish this episode spent more time on the food than the personality conflicts, and that we had a better sense of whether this family's week of Ramsay-ordered rehabilitation is going to take root, or whether all they'll get out of it is some new ovens and a reputation as a possible mob hangout. But in the "watching hubris play out, Greek-style" sector of reality TV, this "Peter's" episode of Kitchen Nightmares is practically Homeric. And if nothing else, it confirms what I and other Ramsay fans had hoped: This will be the sweariest hour of broadcast television each week.
Also following the Hell's Kitchen mold: an opening sequence that lasts forever and seemingly gives away key details of the whole season.
Bizarre subtitling decisions: Was the family patriarch's mush-mouthed accent so severe that we needed a visual aid? Or did the producers just want to emphasize his ominous pronouncement, "This is a family business understand?"
Image of the week: Ramsay warmly embracing the local high school mascot at a promotional fun fair.
Line of the week, when the head waiter asks the head chef if the lobster ravioli are any good: "They're from Restaurant Depot, what do you think?"