Thursday, July 24, 2014

HOW "TOP CHEF" BECAME TOP DOG IN REALITY-COMPETITION! A closer look at a show that transformed the perception of it's art, and won over the toughest reality snobs.

Since Hulu finally started streaming it, I finally got around to catching up on all the seasons of "Top Chef" I missed and even after I did, I ran back to the beginning and have basically been watching it on a loop ever since. It hasn't been too readily available legally for me elsewhere, so I haven't discussed the show as much, but I should. That's one of those few reality shows where once in a while somebody will tell me they hate reality television, but then I'll dig a little deeper and sure enough, like I suspect, and they'll admit to watching "Top Chef", and season two exception, it does seem to fall on the socially and culturally-accepted end of the reality genre, more than most reality-competition shows. I talked a little bit about, how even before "Survivor" debuted "Iron Chef" changed the landscape of cooking shows, from a strictly informative and educational shows to a more widely-accepted place on the television landscape, (That blogpost is below, btw:)

and "Top Chef", has, arguably an even bigger cultural impact in bringing competitive cooking into Primetime. It's not only one of the very best reality shows on TV, it's one of only two shows, that have done the impossible and beat "The Amazing Race" for the Best Reality-Competition Series. (It won for the Vegas season, season 6 btw, just to plug my home a bit; and last year, "The Voice" finally also accomplished that feat.)

It's kinda interesting both to look at "Top Chef" from the beginning of the series, and then to take a look at it's place in the TV landscape, 'cause it really kinda fell into it's place to begin with and then it really started flourishing into it's own legacy, and  yet, even then, it sorta unfortunately fell into it's own background despite that. It started, really as a minor show; basically Bravo had a huge, surprise hit with "Project Runway", which I consider the best Reality-Competition show of all time, and have discussed in length here multiple times, and that said, you kinda have to remember where Bravo was at this point, 'cause it was with "Project Runway", and one or two other things, like "Celebrity Poker Showdown", if any of you remember that, where Bravo was in transition from this, artistic, high-end channel, and that's not to say it's particularly low-end now, but the only real remnant, left of that era is "Inside the Actor's Studio." They would air films more often, and showcase them, as well as musical and theatrical performances, it was a very classy, and formal, arts and entertainment channel, that both celebrated and really also dived into the liberal arts. It would air the Indy Spirit Awards and stuff like that, but after they were bought by NBC-Universal, it was Andy Cohen, who was put in charge as Head of Development at Bravo shortly after Bravo bought Trio, who started to slowly peel away from that image, but strangely he was doing it, in a way still celebrated the arts. Kathy Griffin's presence, for instance, not just a good persona to represent the network. An artist. An actress, a comic, and one who's open enough to really let them explore the aspects of "celebrity" from that perspective that we don't think about for instance, the other side of being an artist, essentially. "Project Runway" is exhibit A for this; it basically demystified all the glam that goes into the glamour of the fashion industry, in main ways that people don't even fully realize anymore, 'cause of how big it's impact actually is. (Models, alone; I used to know the names of the big supermodels growing up, and until they were lined in that same slip on that runway, they were canvas from there on in, no matter how much Tyra Banks's show tries to change that; that was gone from day one, scarily enough.)

Now, because of the scheduling of Fashion Week in New York that "...Runway" is based around, they really could only do that series, once a year, and they needed more programming for this transition, and the recent awareness, in pop culture, of treating the culinary arts and artists, as superstar celebrities, was already in full steam, so "Top Chef", was this minor, secondary experiment, that really originated, just a companion piece essentially to "Project Runway", something to kill a few weeks and marathon once in a while to change-it-up, until "...Runway" comes back. And that's really the essence of "Top Chef", is that it's "Project Runway", redesigned for the culinary arts. That took a little thinking, and you can tell, in the first season especially, how they were, struggling just to figure out what the series was to a certain point. First couple episodes are shot terribly and on very insufficient cameras too. They didn't stock the kitchen as properly as they could've; it's clearly on an unreasonably low budget (Cooking shows can be expensive, and competitive ones especially so; high quality ingredients are expensive), an experiment, the cast of the first season is a bit more random and inexperienced. Some people who had never worked in a kitchen, a culinary student, a health food specialist, a sommelier, as well. The competition's purpose, and the show's purpose, hadn't really been decided yet, and that's something they ultimately found out as they made the show, what ultimately the ideal for "Top Chef" was going to be. That's something I think people who sorta dismiss reality shows, miss out on, especially when you start from the beginning you get to see the ways a reality show develops. And you get to see it firsthand, and especially later, when you go back, when it's really well-edited, you can really see this great story arc of the show itself, as well as the participants and even the judges. I mentioned this the other day, going through the series, for some reason, in season 10, suddenly at the judge's table of the series, they had a swishpan cut between the contestants. They never had that before, but now they have it? It's effective, it's different, the show evolved. It took them a whole season to realize that the chefs should be standing at judges table, and not sitting down, which is what they were most of the time. It's those slight changes, one season a chef wins by sous-vide'ing most of his dishes, then suddenly chefs start losing whenever they sous-vide food; you can track the times and the trends with the series; it's a timeline of America and how a show continually evolves and grows and changes as it goes from this; minor show where they barely get a kitchen and cameras together to where the show is now, fully-formed and perfected enough to be entertaining for the masses, and still highlight and focus mainly on the art, in this food.

That's the one advantage that "Top Chef" has over "Project Runway," it's more relatable. Not everybody, even understands the basics of sewing, much less, fashion design. The shows teaches and helps us understand it better, I know far more than I knew before the show, but still, it's a bit more specialized and foreign. Now, not everybody cooks with liquid nitrogen on a regular basis or something like that, but most everybody cooks, and certainly everybody eats; food is universal. We understand what goes into food, how to make it taste good, how certain ingredients taste, and how they're supposed to taste when good and when bad. That's why cooking shows of all kinds remain so popular, 'cause everybody can relate to them to varying degrees, whether it's knowing how to microwave popcorn and little else, to having dined at a 3-Star Michelin restaurants, we have those experiences filed up in our minds, so when the chefs on the show cook, especially something that's familiar to us, we can relate more to the chefs and the products of they product more than we can on "...Runway".

However, it's got two main reasons why it'll never be better than "Project Runway". One that's obvious, and one that really sorta snuck up on people. The obvious one, the same problem with every cooking show, we can't taste the food? And in this case, that means, we can't judge. That's the big advantage with "Project Runway", that, while, the experts' opinions are clearly more knowledgeable and expert, but while both shows are smart enough not to let the audience have an actual vote in the results, with "Project Runway", we can actually talk, discuss and disagree even about their decisions, and have our own opinions; on "Top Chef", we are forever at the mercy of the judge's conclusions and opinions and that sucks, especially if the food looks really good, or we're told it's good. (I'd much rather be a judge on "Top Chef" if given a pick of any reality show, just to have that experience.) The other weakness with the show we found out, after the infamous "Project Runway" lawsuit that inevitably led to the show moving to Lifetime (The most underrated business moment in recent television history btw; and it's importance and after-effects do not get discussed enough) and that put Bravo a network that really was considered at that point, an up-and-coming network, of quality reality programming; and the centerpiece they built that around, just got ripped from them completely, and they prematurely had to start fresh. It also presumably left "Top Chef" in the position to take over "Project Runway"'s spot as the network's flagship program. Well, they tried that, and it's still a great show, and it did win the Emmy after "Project Runway" left, which is the one thing that show has never done, and even though, they're from the same production company and the people involved are similar, that's sorta created a rivalry, but no matter how you sliced it or cut it, a plate of food, just doesn't stand up compared to a gorgeous well-made, expensive outfit. You can see them next to each other all you want, on TV, you're gonna notice the outfit first, especially if it's on a beautiful model. As similar and from the same family tree that these shows seem, you can't simply replace one with the other, and Bravo realized that, and suddenly despite the awards and critical acclaim and progressive direction, you turn that channel on now and 9/10 times, it's a rerun of "The Real Housewives of..." somewhere. (I honestly don't know the versions of the show or how many there are; somebody can help me on that if you want. Or not; I don't really care actually) A few of the other ones they do I've seen and are okay, in this cinema verite "Unscripted Reality" approach like "Flipping Out", but generally, those shows are a little too big of a stretch outside of the direction the network re-branding and transition was originally heading, and because of that, Bravo has never fully recovered. "Top Chef" has remained a major piece of the channel and is still one of the best reality shows, and it's even spawned three spin-off series, "Top Chef Masters", "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and now "Top Chef: Duels", but it's just not the kind of show you can put in and build a network around unfortunately. (I don't what it says about our country that you can do that ratings-wise and content-wise with "The Real Housewives", but..., there you go.) It was created as the companion series, and frankly it's at it's strongest in that position.

That said, "Top Chef" did inevitably become the biggest television program in the industry, and I'm talking the culinary industry. The record of "Top Chef", compared to most reality programs in finding respected future stars in the industry it promotes, is unbelievable, perhaps outshining even "American Idol" at it's peak. They mentioned it at the beginning of one the season the numbers of celebrated restaurants and cookbooks and awards that have been won over the years from contestants on "Top Chef", and frankly those were just the winners. Plenty of accolades were abound for those who didn't win, and even some who didn't come close have found shocking amounts of success. The show itself, on top of an Emmy, won a James Beard Award. The show stayed true to it's goal, of finding the next great chef, and luckily for the show, the timing of such a venture couldn't have been better, and the show has garnered an unprecedented level of respect, partly because of the reputations of the winners, but also the reputations of the people who they get to participate on the show in some way, usually as a judge. Not only that, the show's created dozens of imitators, Gordon Ramsey's and Food Network's shows probably being the most noteworthy of those, but again, this show was produced to be hold up compared to a show of the highest quality, so it's quality is sincerely higher than it's imitators, and it remains so. That didn't quite, seem like the case for awhile, especially after the fiasco  that season two was, which- going back to look at that season now, (and especially if you actually really know the intricate details of exactly what happened during certain memorable parts of that season) you're half-amazed the show survived at all, and didn't fall into the same trappings as a "Real Housewives..." show does. Really, if you started watching the show in like season 7 or  8 or something, and then went back to catch up on season two; you'd think it was another show altogether. That's part of the point though, of how to really look at reality television, not only watching a show evolve, but how it chooses to evolve, and one of the critical ways it chose to evolve was to simply get over the troubles and tribulations of that season and inevitable switch the main focus as much as possible to the food. The show did that, and season by season, year by year, the show attracted higher and higher quality of chefs. From 1st-year culinary students being in the first season to Michelin star chefs winning, (and some losing) in subsequent ones. It just doesn't raise the profiles of the chefs involved, it more importantly raises the profile of the food, and it helped take, what, once upon a time, was thought of as a fad, "The Celebrity Chef", an almost oxymoron statement to most at one point in time, into a statement that's actually a real statement of artistic appreciation.

In many ways "Top Chef", really has pioneered the industry it promotes and now firmly represents, and has progressed it in pop culture and public knowledge and awareness of the art and industry, even during the worst of economic times when people weren't going to restaurants as often, the show seemed to find a way to transcend that. It's really, in many ways, good and bad, and you can talk to somebody knows more about the culinary industry than I do, but it's turned chef into a position of honor. It's strange how that's turned around, in my lifetime frankly, and how "Top Chef" is really, arguably the biggest reason for that permanent renaissance. And more importantly than that, all that really does is confirm how good a show "Top Chef" is. It's a reality show that, is universally liked, relatable, entertaining, artistic, and done in a way that, found a way to get these incredibly talented people to showcase their skills, and managed to tell an unusually well-crafted story that transfixed audience even at the moments of the very least amount of drama.. I nitpicked the details here and there, but they're details that separate an A+ from an A, and that's the important part to remember. It's that degree of specificity in those same details that separate a 3-star Michelin from a 2-star Michelin chef, and the crazy thing about that statement is that 1-star, Michelin is an impossible and rare feat that only a few of the best in the industry are remotely capable of achieving. And I learned that from watching "Top Chef".

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