For a brief stretch a few weeks back, my weekly TiVo queue contained Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, The Amazing Race and Survivor: four shows that pretty much run the gamut of reality competition, at least in terms of how they frame their games. The Amazing Race, as befits a perpetual Emmy-winner, is the arguably the classiest example of the genre, focusing more on how the teams play than on their personality clashes. On Survivor of course, personality conflicts are part of the game, but the show still emphasizes strategizing and merit along with the needling and seething. Top Chef lines up with The Amazing Race as far as cooking shows go, in that kitchen performance drives the drama far more than bickering. Hell’s Kitchen though falls far below Survivor on the conflict-for-conflict’s-sake scale. Failure is the norm for the cooks on HK; they skate by each week by sucking a little less than the person sweating next to them, or by overstating the suckiness of their competition so as to keep the heat off themselves.
NBC’s new cooking-competition The Chopping Block is produced by the same people who make Hell’s Kitchen, and though it’s based on a reportedly benign Australian series—cut with a healthy measure of the genuinely engaging UK series Last Restaurant Standing—the HK side of the production is never too far away. The Chopping Block looks better than Hell’s Kitchen, if only because it has a filmic look, like Top Chef. And despite host Marco Pierre White’s reputation as “the man who taught Gordon Ramsay how to be a tyrant”—and the fact that he’s one tinfoil hat away from being indisnguishable from a street loony—he’s far more hands-on and encouraging than Ramsay is on Hell’s Kitchen. (He’s more like the Kitchen Nightmares Ramsay.) But by the end of The Chopping Block’s first episode, the finger-pointing and insults inevitably come out. What else do you expect from reality TV?
The rules of The Chopping Block are relatively simple. Eight couples (some married, some siblings, some friends, etc.) have been dived into two teams of eight, staffing restaurants across the street from each other in New York City. Each week the Red Team and the Black Team open for dinner service, and during the course of the evening, they’re judged by an anonymous restaurant critic, who designates one team the loser. Then White hears the members of the losing team make their cases for who should be sent home, and he gives one couple “the sack.”
It’s hard to say whether this format will wear well over the weeks, or if it’ll become like the numbing progression of similar-seeming dinner services on Hell’s Kitchen. This first episode was relatively entertaining, though largely because of the wild-haired, weirdly focused White, who points dramatically at the camera during his interview segments, but actually speaks to the contestants with respect and real insight. During the portion of the show where he selects two head chefs for the night by tasting a signature dish from each couple, he cut to the quick with his assessments, telling one chef that, “The less you put on the plate, the less chance you have of messing it up,” and greeting another’s bowl of gumbo with the sage comment, “If I came over to your house and you served this to me, I’d be happy; if I had a night out at a restaurant and I was served this, I’d be pissed off.”
And later, during service, when the Red Team’s head chef got frustrated with the slowness of her waitstaff, White urged her to take the food out herself, and put the pressure on. That’s a nice twist on the usual teamwork-to-a-point gambits of reality competitions, where contestants would rather let the team fail in order to expose the weakness of the person who screwed up.
In other ways, though, The Chopping Block is typical to a fault. It has the thumping music when winners and losers are announced, it has White urging the contestants to tell him why their colleagues should be sent home, and it has contestants spouting clichés like, “We’re in it to win it,” and “I’m not going to let you throw my brother under the bus!” Most frustratingly, The Chopping Block follows the reality TV formula of moving relentlessly forward from dramatic moment to dramatic moment, without bothering to explain the context for any of them. (When two pieces of kitchen equipment suffer catastrophic failure during a cook-off, the editors take pains to show us the catastrophes twice—once before the commercial and once after—but they never tell us what exactly happened, or how the chefs overcame it.) One of my biggest complaints about Hell’s Kitchen is that neither the contestants nor their challenges feel the least bit real. I don’t have the same concerns about The Chopping Block, but a little explanation creates at least the illusion of reality on reality TV.
Still, the TCB contestants seem like basically decent folk—no manufactured villains, in other words—and judging by the comments of this week’s restaurant critic Corby Kummer, some of them can actually cook. There’s nothing that novel about the format, but as a sucker for cooking competitions, I’ll probably stick around for as long as the show does. (Though I won't be reviewing it for The TV Club.) If nothing else, it’ll be fun to watch the outsized White, who can assess his job, with a straight face, as having “a moral duty to make the right decision.” In this episode, White’s moral duty was wrested from him by a couple who decided to quit rather than see someone else get fired. But it’s exciting to know that White’ll be back next week, pretending to take this seriously.
-One of the other clichés of these kinds of shows is the exaggerated statements of a host’s and/or guest’s importance, in order to reassure an ignorant audience that we’ve tuned into something significant. In The Chopping Block’s case, this manifested in multiple breathless comments by the contestants about Marco, including, “In our industry, Chef Marco is like a God!” and “It’s like he invented food, almost.”
-My favorite throwaway exchange of the night:
“Does anybody have the time?”
“Thyme like the herb?”
-I feel lost without Lost. This Wednesday sucks.