Last night was the much-anticipated season premier of The Next Food-Network Star. (What? I was much-anticipating it!)
I've been a fan since the show's inception. However, it seems like Food Network might be trying to tweak its usual recipe for the 7th season, and I'm not sure I'm a fan of the new flavor.
Star is pretty standard fare for reality tv talent search: in their case, they're looking for a person who has cooking chops, is likeable, and marketable from a brand perspective. They also want someone who brings something different to their tv lineup table. (If you'll excuse all of the cooking puns.)
As the seasons have progressed, there have been--as with any talent search--some successes and some fizzles. Amy Finley of season 3, for instance, never reached star potential on Food Network. (Interesting fact for you non-Star watchers: Finley was actually NOT the chosen winner. The original winner was some ex-Marine guy who ended up having some disqualifying characteristic which the show evidently didn't know about until after naming him the winner. Thus, Finley was given the top spot in the manner of Miss America's first runner up, what with Mr. Star being unable to fulfill his duties and all... I'd been a fan of Finley's for most of the season and was happy to see her end up with the win. However, when I saw her show air, it was really quite bad. She didn't have the star-power needed to hold viewer attention; her show was actually boring to watch. Which is probably part of the reason you no longer find her on the Food Network.) Then there's the biggest former Star: Guy Fieri of season 2. You'd know if you read my old blog (before I took it down at the height of Bloggate 2011) that I feel that Guy is over-exposed. He may be a good cook and a fun dude, but he is involved with waaaaaay too many things: TGIFriday's stuff, several shows on Food Network, host of "Minute to Win It." It's just too much for me. I say, sometimes less is more.
There has also been the emergence of the cooking show contestant archetypes: stay-at-home mom who has to prove herself among the "classically trained" cooks, gourmet chef showing his mad cooking skills, foodie-turned-cook, food blogger, ethnic cook, health-nut, former overweight cook who discovered food can be healthy and wants to share, good cook who sucks on camera, bad cook who's good on camera, obnoxious guy, pretty gal... you know what I mean. Everyone is filling a role, beyond just filling their rolls. (Couldn't resist that one!)
Over the years, the challenges have gotten tougher, and the parade of the biggest names on Food Network has gotten more regular, like Bobby Flay as host, and Alton Brown as guest director there to be borderline rude to the contestants. (Seriously, Alton, you could tone it down just a smidge; they aren't professional tv stars yet!) But one thing has remained pretty much the same: most of the contestants have been likeable in some way. Even the obnoxious or weird ones (think Adam Gertler or Tom Pizzica, neither of whom won the show but both of whom now have shows on Food Network) had us rooting them on because they were goofy and fun-loving. Oh sure, there were the occasional double-crosses and lies and slimy behavior situations--some incidents with Debbie Lee of season 5 and Paul Young of season 6 come to mind-- and the occasional 'tude--like from Brianna Jenkins of season 6--but, again, most of the contestants seemed like nice enough people. I've always assumed that this was purposeful on the part of Food Network because, after all, how are you going to successfully market someone who all of your viewers know is a jerk? It would probably be difficult.
But, it seems, something is shifting now.
Maybe it's because reality tv dominates the airwaves now, and the competition is more fierce, and people are tuning in to such trash as the Real Housewives or MTV's Real World (which has grown more and more disgusting as the years progress, though I haven't watched it in years and am basing my contention on clips I see on The Soup), and Food Network is just trying to keep up with the times. But of this season's hopefuls, I found myself thinking last night, there were several personalities who seemed out of place with the normal crew. There were archetypes missing from the contenders (the stay-at-home mom, for instance, though perhaps they don't need her anymore since she won 2 seasons ago...). There were, quite regrettably, new ones that really have no place on this show, and I think it's to the detriment of both the program and the network as a whole that they were even there.
Take, for instance, the 1st casualty of the season: Howie. He is a radio personality who was trying to break into tv. He is not a cook. He said as much himself, and then proved it over and over again in the challenges. He even said to the judges that he was a novice. Um, I'm sorry, but who wants to watch a cooking show hosted by someone who, it's very possible, knows even less than they do about cooking? Not I! He clearly had no clue what he was doing, and was a drain on his team (at least, that's how the show's editing made it seem.) In the team challenge, his teammate Jyll had to find him bowls, ice, utensils; had to help him heat oil; had to instruct him on, it seemed, all counts. But when it came time for judging and his teammates didn't have anything to show for themselves since they'd been busy helping him, he said nothing. Before the elimination, when Jyll approached him about how much she'd helped him, he didn't thank her or apologize--he tried pointing out the things he felt he had done and made it seem like she'd done little for him. At elimination, he tried the same tactic. Thankfully, the selection committee saw that he didn't have the cooking chops and cut him, but I couldn't help wondering how he could have even made it to the taping round. Had there not been any better contenders among the audition video entries than him?
Next, there was the obnoxious dude (who is doing double-duty this season as the gourmet chef who thinks he's a food god), Chris, who tried to buy a 6-pack of beer on his team's trip to the market to get their supplies for the challenge. Did I mention that he was planning to use part of the team's food budget for this purchase? And was trying to pressure one of the teammates into not buying a more expensive chocolate for her dessert so that he could get the beer? Well, he was. One of the contestants remarked early on that Chris seemed like a frat boy. That was an accurate description of him. He also tried to start crap with one of his teammates (the ethnic cooker, if you were wondering) about her spicy sauce. He tried pulling rank and saying he wouldn't serve something that would burn the judges' mouths. She had to argue in favor of the bold flavor as it was her cooking type and her contribution. (It was served; the judges enjoyed it.) His brand of obnoxious and his argumentative nature do not seem like they'll become endearing as time goes on. They will merely become more annoying.
Most notably, however, in unlikeable characters, was a woman who, I think, must have gotten lost on her way over to the Mob Wives taping. A short, dark-haired middle aged woman, Penny showed up in a garish, fuzzy vest-like abomination and animal-print stilettos. Then she took an immediate, catty, and unbecoming dislike to the younger, tall, blond, former-model Alicia. She even remarked that Alicia was tall and blond and her opposite. It seemed quite obvious that she hated Alicia on sight simply because of her appearance, as though jealous of her. Then, in and among her time trying to over-sell her "sexy" food concept (which, also, really doesn't have a place on Food Network), she proceeded to be, well, a real bitch to and about Alicia for the rest of the episode. Penny made snarky comments about Alicia's cooking abilities, was argumentative at the market because Alicia needed "too many" ingredients for her meal (which the judges loved, by the way), was mean about the dessert concept Alicia had come up with for their team, and even appeared to try to sabotage it by letting it boil after being asked to make sure that it didn't. From the look of the previews, it seems like this won't be the last of the cattiness from this chick. I'm not saying I'm Alicia's #1 fan --though, really, she seemed quite harmless and, so far, likeable enough--the animosity coming from Penny was uncalled for, and made her seem like a villain.
As I said before, I don't know exactly why Food Network has decided to go this way in their casting for season 7--perhaps they're trying to stay up with the trends--but I really wish they wouldn't. I was further distressed by their preview montage which advertised more clashing behaviors and incidents coming up this season. Why this new approach? They should really leave the spice and intrigue and trash to the other shows and just concentrate on what has made them successful in the past.
The thought that this shift might be the new norm for this show leaves a bad taste in my mouth.