This week, Fox is bringing Hell's Kitchen back for its ninth season, spreading the first two hours over a couple of nights, as the lead-ins for the latest episodes of MasterChef. (Those with an insatiable appetite for Gordon Ramsay and access to BBC America can only enjoy the U.S. broadcast of the second season of Gordon's Great Escape, in which Ramsay does the Anthony Bourdain traveling-palate thing all over Southeast Asia.) Checking in on the season premiere of this inexplicably long-running series makes for as good a time as any to reflect on the ways that Ramsay's image in America has changed since he first set out to woo the U.S, market in the mid-'00s, and the ways in which it's pretty much remained stuck in the mud.
The Ramsay of MasterChef is designed to resemble the Ramsay of British TV more than the choleric, pissed-off, shouting madman of Hell's Kitchen, and he looks more comfortable there. That's one reason that it's surprising to see the show coming back for one more spin; you might think that, at this point, Ramsay would feel that the show had done its job of making him famous in America and that he'd be about as eager to keep doing it as Jim Carrey would have been to follow up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Ace Ventura 3. But the fact remains that this is the show that introduced Ramsay to U.S. audiences and shaped their first impressions of him. Either he still feels an attachment to it, or he (or Fox) isn't sure that he can discard it completely.
The problem with the format of Hell's Kitchen isn't that it's not entertaining, it's that it's unseemly. It has its appeal, but that appeal is essentially sadistic. And that's not because Ramsay is loud and vicious and insulting to the contestants, it's because most of the contestants seem to have been hand-picked for their spectacularly high level of incompetence and social maladjustment. It has less to do with a competition reality show (such as MasterChef) where the contestants do have some degree of skill at what they're doing than with those YouTube video sensations starring someone who is attempting to achieve Internet celebrity by showing off some invention they've made or executing some feat of strength or agility and who ends up achieving Internet celebrity by taking a heavy, painful-looking blow to the nuts.
The first episode begins with the chefs being deposited backstage at the Orpheum Theater, where they are led to believe they're about to be introduced in front of a large, cheering crowd. Then the curtains part to to reveal Ramsay in an empty auditorium, jeering at them for having been so vain and stupid as to imagine that they're "stars." That perfectly captures the spirit of the show: a bunch of starstruck dopes being insulted for having dared to harbor illusions that the show itself had instilled and encouraged in them. The current opening credits sequence, in which the contestants do wacky shtick while appearing to be trapped inside a giant pinball machine and dodging bumpers and balls, is both hard to watch and, like the scene at the Orpheum, absolutely perfect: it looks like a premonition of some dreadful time in the near future when the very concept of dignity has been scrubbed from the human race. The credits include an especially humiliating appearance by one fellow named Jason, who doesn't even make it to the end of the first episode. Having successfully courted Ramsay's approval during the first round of "signature dishes" with an unpromising plate of pork tacos, he suffers some kind of attack in the kitchen while getting ready for the first night of restaurant service and has to be carried out of the premises feet first and shipped to the hospital.
The chefs are ostensibly here so they can meet on the field of culinary battle and establish which one of them is best qualified to be gifted with a position as head chef at a Manhattan branch of a steakhouse franchise. It's not exactly the most glittering of prizes, but if most of these people were to go through the usual channels, they'd be lucky to land a dishwashing gig at a McDonald's near Love Canal. Steven, the first person to depart the show for non-health-related reasons, produces a signature dish that Ramsay describes, accurately, as looking like dinosaur toenails. Steven spends most of the first-night dinner service sitting on the bench, ordered by Ramsay to wait out the clock at a special table in a corner of the kitchen that has been set aside for those chefs who appear to be on the verge of accidentally harming themselves or others. He is soon joined by Tommy, whose Quasimodo posture may be due to the weight of the tattoos covering his neck and head, including the words "ROCK AND ROLL" stenciled in large letters across his forehead. About the best you can expect from such characters is that they display some humility and team spirit. Tommy, seated at the kids' table while his teammates are hustling around him, shows just how long ago that ship sailed in his case when a glass of wine is set in front of him to help him pass the time. "Seriously?" he says. "I can't get a Pinot noir?"
What can you expect from such folks? Not competence, or even much improvement. They're just there to give Ramsay a chance to fake a fit. (Even if the fits aren't altogether fake—God knows I wouldn't want to be in the same room with most of these people either—the notion underlying them, that he respects his charges as talented cooks with potential that he wants to motivate them to live up to, is as phony as an apologetic profession of innocence from Rupert Murdoch.) In a world where people lined up to compete for the chance to appear on Flavor of Love, I don't suppose there's much point in asking who the hell would want to be on this show, though the level of self-delusion on display is awesome to behold. Brendan, who comes across as the most pompous and egomaniacal of the men, is asked by Ramsay if the bass he's presenting on a plate is the same fish he had ten minutes earlier, lies and says that he threw that earlier piece of fish away, and then actually pretends to dig through the garbage looking for it before admitting that he's kind of lying.
A woman named Elise suddenly decides to jump in and start hectoring her teammates about what needs to be done and, oblivious to the fact that everybody, Ramsay included, has been begging her to shut the hell up, explains that "Our team really bneeded someone to lead them vocally." Then there's Connie, a blonde Texan who at first appears to have applied to be on the show to make it easier to stalk the star. Offering Ramsay her signature dish of a chicken fried ribeye with masked potatoes, she smiles naughtily and tells him that "there's actually a little sugah in it!" She means it literally: the psycho puts sugar in her mashed potatoes, and continues to smirk even after Ramsay, in spite of her promise that it'll "be like an orgasm in your mouth", spits his mouthful into the garbage can. Getting nowhere with the host, she starts cozying up to Brendon, whose enjoyment and encouragement of it would be reason enough to justify his subsequent dismissal from the show all by itself. My biggest fear is that some mad producer may try to bring the two of them together again for a reality dating show. It could be scarier than Splice.
- It sure can get wearying listening to people talk when every sentence includes a [bleep!] Ramsay is the only one who knows how to include censorable cuss words in his speech so that they're arranged in such a way that the full impact still comes through. ("You're so full of [bleep!], even your eyes are brown.") Of course, he's had more practice at it by now than anyone else in the English-speaking world.
- Brendon's farewell speech, which ought to be inscribed in some Hall of Fame for Those Who Don't Get It, demands to be quoted in full: "I'm out. Don't hate the player, hate the game. I'm sad to leave Hell's Kitchen, but I'm gonna go back to New York and lead some other kitchen to greatness. Just want to give a shout out to Carrie: good luck, I am your biggest fan, and call me!"