I admit I have a softer spot in my heart for Top Chef because it was one of my first guides, but I don't believe that view radically skews my opinions of this show, although the gentle reader may grow weary of the comparison. These comments relate to the recently completed season four.
While discussing the show with a friend, I said it was like watching Top Chef on Valium, but it's more accurately Top Chef on Valium and Prozac with a little Digoxin thrown in for good measure.
The Show Overall: These episodes move so slowly, but you still feel unsatisfied at the end of the hour. The editing is choppy, leaving no coherent story arc (or whatever it's called in the reality genre). There's so much detritus footage that makes no difference to the episode resolution, but it's there every week. I want to see more of the selection committee, I want to see more cooking, I want to understand the decisions better. I want, I want, I want. I shouldn't end each week with this feeling.
The Challenges: They devise ridiculous challenges that neither test the finalists' skills nor relate to any kind of studio work they'll film (The Digoxin part -- you know, psych drug, psych drug, cardiac drug. Which of these doesn't belong?). This season alone they had to cook on a moving train, a carrier at sea, perform different skills set demonstrations with no prep time, etc. None of that remotely represents what they'll find if they win the show, when culinary producers and crews create scripts, test recipes, basically eliminate the need for the cooking skills at all. Now I'll admit that Top Chef has had some stupid challenges, the gas station and vending machine ones come to mind, but they were at the QuickFire level (Mini-Challenge on NFNS), not the Elimination (Main Challenge on NFNS). What should have been a logical progression of introductory to proficient camera skills and basic to chef-level cooking technique demonstrations ended up a hodge-podge with no clear organization or rhythm.
The Editing: All due respect to my sister: I know that editors are sometimes limited by the whim of the producers and/or clients. The thing is, someone should have stood back and realized that the product was milquetoast. Crisper editing with a view to the story for the episode would have made a world of difference. Getting rid of a quarter of the inane comments by the finalists -- some of which were obviously scripted -- would have breathed life into the franchise. There's only so much illumination that can be cast on a scene by an off-set remark. Only Adam actually fulfilled the typical role these usually take: a funny or sarcastic reflection on what happened. Skillful editing includes the expression on faces as things happen, so the subtext isn't needed to understand what's going on.
The Finalists: A more boring batch of contestants I've yet to meet, with the exception of Kelsey who was the most annoying, plastic replicant ever to dull a show (Marcel from Top Chef is still no. 1, but Kelsey may edge out Richard Hatch for the no. 2 spot). I keep harping on the editing, but either no one had any personality, or any flares of realism were left on the hard drive (or cutting room floor, depending on your era). The weird thing is that Top Chef began with contestants like this their first season, but each year the talent pool gets better and higher up the culinary food chain. This is not a perfect analogy, because it's very clear that Food Network is no longer looking for skilled chefs, but that wouldn't prevent them from looking for more talented amateurs.
My disappointment in this show is not that it's failing to become a Top Chef clone (believe it or not), but that they've watered down the competition and created such a bland product that it's boring. Whether through editing or elimination decisions, it was pretty clear from the beginning who was being groomed. It's hard to invest in a finalist if you know his or her days are numbered. Obscure judging also didn't help things. In this season's final episode, the criteria cited by Susie or Bob was that the winner had to be able to start filming the next day. This could mean one of two things (well, it could mean more, but these are the two I came up with): Either two of the finalists had family obligations or only one needed the least work to become camera-ready. If it's the former, what a stupid way to make a decision, if it's the latter, I do not see how they chose the winner they did. But how would we know? Not one decision was ever explained on camera either to the contestants or to the viewer.
Even understanding that they are focusing on camera skills, rather than cooking ability -- a sad trend throughout the network -- I believe this show could be so much more than the rote entertainment it is.