The second season of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
I spent much of the first season of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution proclaiming it as a “Frank Capra movie as reality show” to anyone who would listen (believe me, there weren’t a lot of you). It had all the trappings of the classic Capra-corn: small-town setting, supportive people helping out a charismatic lead, forces working against the lead who eventually came around to his side, and a sentimental ending complete with musical number.
There was reason, then, to worry that the series wouldn’t be able to recapture that feeling in a second season, which is less a continuation and more a sequel, featuring British chef Jamie Oliver at its center but no other returning elements in front of the camera (well, that little girl who said, “Goodbye, daddy” adorably in last season’s opening credits is now pretty much a regular, so there’s that). Yet the second season—at least in tonight’s premiere, the only episode ABC sent to critics—works very well by embracing a DIFFERENT kind of ‘30s and ‘40s comedy story type.
Season two of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is about the small-town boy who goes to the big city. After his experience in Huntington, West Virginia, Oliver thinks that it’s time to take his “food revolution” on the road and hit the United States’ second largest city: Los Angeles. But when he gets there, he abruptly realizes that it’s much, much harder to effect change in the big city, that the city has little time for anything but itself and thinks nothing of crushing all of his dreams straight off. He finds a handful of supporters here and there, but things are being done in the city the way they always have been, and for a guy who’s fundamentally about changing some pretty basic things about yourself, well, that’s a tough way to live.
In case you haven’t seen Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution or heard of Oliver before, the show couldn’t be simpler. Every season, he visits a new location and tries to change the way people eat by reducing the amount of processed food they eat and boosting the number of home-cooked meals from fresh ingredients. Fundamentally, he’s a pragmatist who believes that if you REALLY knew where your chicken nuggets or fast-food ground beef was coming from, you’d stop eating it. (Indeed, one of the best moments in the first season came when Oliver hand made a bunch of chicken nuggets out of disgusting chicken byproducts and the kids he was doing the demonstration for STILL WANTED THEM. Even though they’d seen what went into making the nuggets, the familiar shape and breading appealed to them. Oliver was flabbergasted.) But he’s also something of an idealist, someone who seems incapable of understanding just why a fast food restaurant proprietor wouldn’t want to give his customers a better quality, healthier burger—that uses all of the same ingredients, mind—for just a couple bucks more.
Oliver is, in some ways, a fish swimming upstream. His first season aired in a time when change might have still seemed possible, and his goals were fairly small-scale: Change the eating habits of some of the unhealthiest people in a town of 50,000 people. His second season airs in a time when it seems as if much of the nation has given up on change and, indeed, doesn’t really want to abandon the way things have always been, for whatever reason.
In a time when the question isn’t whether government should be small but whether it should exist at all, Oliver’s quaintly calling for MORE government regulation—in this case, much more strict food labeling laws. In a country that’s long seen itself as fundamentally better than every other country on Earth, Oliver has the nerve to question why we haven’t banned flavored milk in schools, like the United Kingdom and every other European nation he’s visited. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution isn’t a “liberal” show in any sense other than the fact that Oliver’s views on food would fall roughly on the “left” side of the ledger in the U.S. But the national swing back toward conservatism, no matter how brief, makes Oliver’s food liberalism, no matter how limited and no matter how much it’s presented as common sense, feel somehow very quaint, a leftover from an earlier time, even if that earlier time was a couple of years ago.
What’s weird is that Oliver and the show seem absolutely baffled at the resistance he encounters at every turn, as though they’re not used to people’s intractability when it comes to food. (I’ve never seen the original British version of this show, but my understanding is that Oliver encountered plenty of resistance overseas, too.) Oliver—and his producers—have the zeal of true believers. They know they’re right, and they know if they could just try the right tactics, they could get everyone to believe them. And this stuff shouldn’t be controversial (though Oliver would find himself weirdly drawn into the controversy over Michelle Obama’s attempts to improve school lunches a few months after this was filmed).
That’s what makes Oliver’s hopelessness at various points in tonight’s premiere so heartbreaking. There are few things worse than seeing someone give up on their faith, and Oliver’s faith in his ability to get people to at least try new things with their diets is sorely tested in tonight’s episode. Sure, he meets a few friendly vegans here and there, sympathetic to his cause, but can he gain access to LA schools or fast-food restaurants, similar to the way he changed cooking habits at a variety of Huntington institutions? Of course he can’t.
Unfortunately, this gives tonight’s first hour just a bit of a sense of running in place. When Oliver is demonstrating just how “pink slime” is turned into an additive that goes into 70 percent of all ground beef (and isn’t required to be labeled by the USDA, despite the fact that ammonia is used in its production) or when he’s showing just how much sugar is the amount of flavored milk kids drink in the LA school system every week, the show takes on the best sense of his food evangelism. But when he’s trying to break into the school system via a school board meeting and getting shunted off by bureaucracy or when he’s trying to convince a friendly, mostly sympathetic restaurant owner to just TRY a couple of changes to his menu items, he makes no headway. And that can be frustrating to watch.
And what’s great about Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is that there are two ways to watch the show. The show clearly wants you to see Oliver as a hero, a man going up against the system and continuing to fight even when it seems like there’s nowhere left to turn. But you can also see this as a series about a man who casually destroys lives because he so firmly believes in his own creed, a man who doesn’t see that, no, that fast-food guy can’t increase the cost of his menu items because there’s probably a McDonald’s across the street, and they sure as shit aren’t raising prices. He’s probably on a knife’s edge, and here’s this guy from overseas, trying to tell him how to do things in a way that he KNOWS will destroy his bottom line.
Season one was easy because, on some level, Oliver was always dealing with people, and people can change their minds, can come to see how other ways of life might be better. Season two is hard because Oliver is dealing with institutions, with systems put in place to resist change, be they political or economic, and the system will crush the individual every time. Season one had the glow of rosy idealism, of believing things were possible. Season two is the morning after, the point where you realize that, no, things don’t HAVE to go well just because they seemed like they might. What makes Oliver a great protagonist is that he stands up, bruised, and keeps up the fight.