Last November, Food Network debuted Kitchen Inferno, another in its ever-expanding lineup of culinary game shows. A combination of Iron Chef and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Kitchen Inferno pits one contestant at a time against challengers of escalating skill, in head-to-head cook-offs that play out in front of a studio audience. At the end of each round, if players win, they can either pocket their cash or risk it all to continue the game. This premise couldn’t be simpler or easier to understand.
Which is why my heart sank when I watched the first episode of Kitchen Inferno and saw, throughout the competition, frequent cutaways to “confessionals”—from both the chefs who were trying to win money and the chefs trying to stop them. For those unfamiliar with any kind of reality TV (competition, slice-of-life, or otherwise), the confessional is a direct-to-camera or looking-just-past-the-camera interview with the participants, filmed later but usually edited and phrased to come across like an immediate commentary on whatever just happened. Confessionals are staples of the “follow a Kardashian around” kind of reality series. They’ve also long been a part of the more logistically complicated reality competitions like Project Runway, Survivor, or The Amazing Race, where the contestants live with each other for a month or so and bring a lot of their personal drama to the game. But over the years they’ve made their way into shows that don’t need them—like Kitchen Inferno.
Let me restate this, as clearly as I can: There is absolutely no practical reason to add confessionals to what’s essentially a game show. They don’t explain anything about the game that the host hasn’t already covered. They don’t explain anything about the contestant that’s not handled by the intro. They offer nothing of value to the viewers, aside from the reassurance that they’re watching television in the 21st century.
For longtime fans of game shows, the main issue with the ubiquity of confessionals is that they continue to blur the lines between a venerable TV genre and The Bachelor. Even the terminology has been carrying over, no matter the series’ format. People who take part in a single-episode competition have started using phrases like, “I don’t want to get sent home,” as though they were spending a month on an island and not an afternoon in a TV studio. Also, most of the time, the interviews on these shows become mere vessels for trash talk as the contestants fire off insults behind each other’s back. Though these insults are seemingly good-natured, it still reinforces the idea that television is interesting only if there’s some kind of trumped-up conflict.
And when this isn’t going on, confessionals are used to advance what’s become a depressing trend toward Queen For A Day-ism in game shows. Back in the mid-20th century, first on radio and then TV, Queen For A Day asked audiences to vote on which of a group of troubled women was the most miserable—and thus the most deserving to win a bunch of prizes. A lot of the interviews in modern-day TV competitions are about how each of the contestants needs to win, in order to take care of their sick parents or to save their business, or for some other crucial reason.
I get why shows do this. In theory, it’s supposed to up the audience’s rooting interest, and make each win into a feel-good story. But for me, at least, it has the opposite effect: It makes all the losses into terrible tragedies. And again, as with nearly everything else confessional-related, it’s unnecessary. I can easily root for contestants who only go on a game show because they want to have fun and win money. So long as they’ve got personality and talent, they’ve got my support. They don’t need to have cancer too.
Once upon a time there was something fresh about the confessional. As much as people like to bag on reality TV as inherently trashy, the genre’s roots are in documentary, and when done well, the interviews serve some of the same narrative function as they do in a film, or in a piece of broadcast journalism. Sometimes they’re postmortems, where participants in an event reflect on what they did and how they felt. Sometimes they’re much trickier, giving the viewer information that other people on the show don’t have, making the audience complicit in whatever deception or master plan one of the characters is hatching.
The better reality shows—competition or otherwise—still think through how best to use confessionals to toy with the fans or to advance the story in an unexpected way. But most of the genre’s production teams don’t seem to give these interviews much thought at all. They’re either there because that’s just what reality TV is supposed to look like—punctuated every few minutes with people in another location talking toward the camera—or because it’s a lazy way to spoon-feed audiences. Nothing is up for interpretation. Whenever something happens on the screen, someone explains what it means.
Even in non-competition reality shows, confessionals have lost their purpose. The ones that follow colorful Americans with kooky jobs, or rich people who like to party, already seem barely true-to-life. The situations are contrived and the conversations comes off as scripted. Throw a fake interview into the mix and the “reality” feels even less real.
I’m not so sure that the gimmick hasn’t outlived its usefulness in Top Chef-like shows, too. It’s too late to drop them from Top Chef itself (or Survivor, etc.), but for any new reality competition that comes along, the producers would do well to ask themselves what purpose these interviews actually serve. For longtime viewers, the confessionals have become something to scrutinize for clues as to who might be going home that week, making them, essentially, spoilers. Also, I’ve always been a little bothered by the way the confessionals on these shows fudge the timeline, making the interviews look like insta-reactions when they were shot much later.
My biggest beef with the confessional, though, is its use in an ordinary “Which of these four home cooks can bake the best cookies?” sort of show. That’s why I heaved a heavy sigh watching Kitchen Inferno last year—and why I decided I didn’t need to watch it ever again because I’ve seen this show, so many times. It’s like what happened after Who Wants To Be A Millionaire became popular, when suddenly every new quiz program had contestants sitting in darkened studios, answering roughly one question every five minutes and then risking their winnings to keep advancing, all while elaborate lighting and music effects spun around them. At a certain point, that visual and structural grammar became so omnipresent that they started to be seen as essential. Having a game show without a slow build and a risk-it-all moment would’ve been like having a late night talk show without an opening monologue.
That’s what’s happening with these competition shows: No one wants to risk changing the now-standard format, and as a result, every new show arrives warmed-over. Confessionals have crossed the line from “part of the formula” to “tediously formulaic.”