Tag Archives: Top Chef

More “Not Boring” Than Usual: Surprises Elevate the 2010 Primetime Emmys

More “Not Boring” Than Usual:

Surprises Elevate the 2010 Primetime Emmys

As a whole, the Emmy Awards live and die on surprise: sure, there’s always favourites, but the idea that “anything can happen” is what keeps us watching a show which so often punishes us for becoming emotionally involved. For every pleasant surprise there has been soul-crushing complacency, and so we watch hoping that something will cut through the pain in order to give us some sense of hope for the legitimacy of these awards.

And while we eventually leave each evening lamenting numerous mistakes, comfortable in our superior knowledge of what is truly great in television in a given year, I don’t want that to obfuscate the moments of transcendence. Sometimes, moments come together that defy our cynical expectations, moments that find the spontaneity in the scripted or make the spontaneous feel as if it was planned all along. And while I remain the jaded critic that I was before the show began, any chance of carrying that attitude through the entirety of the show was diminished at the sight of Jon Hamm booty-dancing towards Betty White, and all but gone by the time Top Chef finally ended The Amazing Race’s reign of terror over Reality Competition program.

It was a night filled with surprises, whether in terms of who was winning the awards (with a huge number of first-time winners) or in terms of emotional moments which resulted from those winners – sure, there were hiccups along the way, and there were still a number of winners which indicated that the Emmys are still stuck in their ways, but there was enough excitement for me to designate these Emmys as “not boring.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were more “not boring” than usual.

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Oy with the Auditions Already: FOX’s Masterchef Less Than Masterful

When I sat down to watch Masterchef, it was largely out of curiosity: I knew of the format internationally, and was curious to see how Gordon Ramsay was translating it into his television oeuvre. The basic premise of the show, taking “amateur” chefs and turning them into culinary professionals, is not without its merit, and it puts Ramsay in his only tolerable mode for me personally. I loathe Hell’s Kitchen because Ramsay’s antagonism is an end in itself: he yells and screams and swears to manufactured a hyper-competitive environment, and his personality overpowers the show’s potential as a cooking competition (which is underdeveloped, since that’s clearly not why people are watching). However, I find Kitchen Nightmares to be quite watchable because Ramsay’s yelling and swearing, while certainly heightened for the American version, eventually gives way to his effort to actually help people, and work towards some sort of meaningful conclusion.

Masterchef is unquestionably that more meaningful Ramsay, but unfortunately I have to say that the series is thus far a pretty big waste of time. I think there’s probably a show in here somewhere, but this opening episode was so poorly designed that I don’t know if I can tough it out for any amount of time. I actually like many of the elements of the series, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t actually get to see anyone actually cook in this week’s episode, which is so focused on personalities and yet ends up making the actual cooking process seem inert and lifeless in 99% of examples. By focusing on these auditions, to the point where they’re being stretched out over two weeks of episodes, the series kills any momentum it could possibly achieve by failing to define its own personality while trying to lay the groundwork for each of the carefully selected chefs who are being allowed into the competition.

And while I may appreciate a good cooking show, I spent more time laughing at the over-the-top production of the show than I did connecting with any of the contestants, which I would consider a bit of a reality television disaster.

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Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters

Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters

July 10th, 2010

Anyone who watches Survivor could tell you that this year was its best in a very long time: blindsides became standard, immunity idols became common currency, and Russell (for better or for worse) introduced an entirely new way of playing the game. For fans of the show, it was everything you could hope for, combining the twist and turns of the best seasons with some of the players from those seasons with the “Heroes vs. Villains” structure of the Spring season. Overall, the year was definitive evidence that the Survivor formula is still capable of surprising us, and that twenty seasons into its run Survivor is still a viable reality series.

And so it may seem strange that, after experiencing one of its best years ever, Survivor was shut out of the Reality Competition series category at the Emmy Awards (although Jeff Probst is nominated again in the Host category, which he has won twice). This isn’t a huge surprise, really: after all, The Amazing Race has won this category for seven straight years, so it’s not as if one can expect a great deal of turnaround in terms of the nominees. However, Survivor hasn’t been nominated for the award since 2006, and I think the fact that it’s yet to be nominated again reveals something very interesting about the Emmy voters.

Primarily, it reveals that they don’t actually like reality television.

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Season Premiere: Entourage – “Stunted”

“Stunted”

June 27th, 2010

There is a half-finished draft of a post wherein I vowed to give up on Entourage this season sitting on WordPress’ server, written late last week as I wrestled with this decision. I thought that this was going to be the season when I would finally break down and stop watching a show that I’ve unfairly subjected to indepth critical analysis despite the series’ complete lack of interest in any of the qualities which would warrant such indepth critical analysis. There’s a point where I would have to accept that the show I want Entourage to be is never going to exist, and that for better (or, far more likely, for worse), the show will remain as airy as it has ever been without any sense of consequence or real dramatic stakes.

And yet I think the necessary intervention is less about the twenty-two minutes a week I spend watching something so trifling and more about the half hour I sometimes spent analyzing it. While I would never defend the series’ quality, and certainly feel that it has devolved considerably since its initial potential, the show’s seventh season has started off without any pretensions as it relates to what kind of show this is. The show’s problem in the past is that it has contained elements which could be a more interesting series if they were only allowed to play out until their logical (and complicated) conclusions, but “Stunted” has no such elements: it’s quick, it’s simple, and its entire plot can fit comfortably into a cable listings logline.

And so, both because I won’t be alone and because Autumn Reeser personally told me I should continue watching on Twitter, I’m going to keep watching, albeit without taking out my critical frustrations on a show completely disinterested in changing.

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Treme – “Shame, Shame, Shame”

“Shame, Shame, Shame”

May 9th, 2010

There is a certain familiarity within Treme that has seemed a little bit foreign in the early stages of the series – community is obviously a key theme for the series, but it seems like everyone knows everyone else, or at least seem to know everyone who they need to know in order to allow Simon and Overmeyer to make the arguments they want to make. It just so happens that Lambreaux knows a city councilor, and it turns out that Ladonna’s brother worked at Janette’s restaurant, and it seems Toni Bernette represents just about everyone in this city. There’s a point where we start to wonder just how all of these connections could be possible, moments that pull us out of the sense of “realism” and authenticity the show seems to be trying to capture (and which Christopher Cwynar wrote about here).

And yet, “Shame, Shame, Shame” opens with a dream sequence, which is precisely the opposite of realistic and yet which sort of places everything into perspective. There is a certain level of spiritual fantasy to New Orleans, a lyricism which the show wants to be able to capture: it wants to show people struggling in the wake of the storm, certainly, but it also wants to emphasize that they are always part of a community, and what better way to capture that than by having them know one another, or at the very least having their paths intersect more than we could have imagined. The show’s various cameos are not so much meant to overwhelm us with star power (although tonight’s got to me for reasons I’ll get into after the jump) as they are to place these characters within “real” communities, providing them a sense of hope within a situation that isn’t going to be getting better anytime soon.

Sure, there are occasionally moments when things seem a bit too serendipitous, but there are enough moments where this episode nicely delineates between hope and reality that I think I’m along for the ride.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Four – “Reality Doesn’t Bite”

“Reality Doesn’t Bite”

December 16th, 2009

[This is Part Four of a six-part series chronicling the shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade - for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

In Part One, I suggested that I had no real vivid memories of television before 2001, and while this is effectively true I do have a memory about reality television that predates that time. I was watching Entertainment Tonight (I swear, at one point this was a perfectly logical thing to do), and they had a short news blurb about how a Scandinavian reality show concept was coming to television amidst controversy. The show was, in fact, Survivor, and when they talked about the premise (people stranded on a pacific island left to fight it out for a million dollars) I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had ever heard.

And then I watched 19 seasons of it.

What I quickly discovered was that I love what we’ve now come to call the Reality Competition genre, shows which capture the thrill of, you know, competition with the added dose of, well, reality. To use other words is convenient to help justify watching the shows, equating them to a social experiment or a chance to live vicariously through others, but there is something about seeing people you come to know and care about compete against one another for a cash prize that continues to see me tuning in week in and week out.

Now, when analyzing the decade as a whole it may seem strange – more than strange, it’s probably a bit misrepresentative – to limit the limitless reality genre to only its competition format, but for me the competition format has been the far more important and positive television force. While there is, in fact, something borderline exploitative about some elements of the reality genre, competitive reality is the unique mix of casting and a cleverly designed structure, shows which utilize various narrative tools (especially editing) in order to welcome viewers into experiences that are not their own in a way that empowers us to, in a limited form, psychoanalyze our social interactions, race around the world, or care about something about which we know extremely little.

And while it isn’t in fact for everyone, it’s definitely something that has been an important part of my television experience over the past decade.

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2009 Emmy Nominations Analysis: Power to the People?

Emmy2009Title

Power to the People?

2009 Emmy Nominations Analysis

The people have the power, and the people have pretty darn good taste.

That’s the story out of this year’s Emmy award nominations (click here for Cultural Learnings’ list, and here for the Academy’s) where a few key surprises and a couple of major snubs indicate that the popular vote was not in any capacity an absolutely travesty for the Academy, as some quite logically predicted. I spoke earlier this week about just what the definition of popular would end up indicating, and the answer appears to be a healthy combination of an appreciation of great television and an eye for trendy selections. The result is an Emmys where nearly every category has a silver lining, and where a few snubs are not enough to give the impression that there’s going to be some very deserving winners in this field.

Mad Men and 30 Rock Dominate

There is no surprise here, don’t get me wrong: no one expected the iron grip of these two shows to stop after dominating last year’s proceedings. However, the scale of that domination is quite ludicrous. 30 Rock has 10 acting nominations, 4 writing nominations, 3 directing nominations, plus its nod for Best Comedy Series and all of its other technical nods. The result is an absolutely staggering number of nominations, and I’m happy about it: I like seeing Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer and Jane Krakowski all get nominations for their work along with Fey and Baldwin, and although the four writing nominations kept other shows out of the running they are four pretty fantastic episodes.

Mad Men, meanwhile, didn’t add quite as many nods, although it did pick up a Lead Actress nomination for Elisabeth Moss, which makes me extremely happy. As I said in my preview, I really expected January Jones in the category, but I prefer Moss’ less showy role at the end of the day. Still, combine with Hamm (also nominated for his guest stint on 30 Rock) and Slattery returning (I’d have preferred Kartheiser, but I’ll take it), and its own four writing nominations (plus a directing nod), and the show is without a doubt dominating on the drama side of things.

Out with the “Popular,” In with the Popular

In the biggest shocker of all considering the popular vote, the Comedy Series category had one shocking exclusion and one suprising (but oft predicted) inclusion. The exclusion is the most popular comedy on television, in terms of viewers - Two and a Half Men failed to secure a comedy nod, something it has done in years previous. This makes me question the definition of popular, especially with the inclusion – Family Guy, the first animated comedy series since The Flintstones to make it into the category. While The Simpsons always chose to compete in the Animation category because it also reflects the work of the animators, Family Guy chose to cut out the animated part and compete with the big boys, and it paid off. However, unlike last year where they could submit their Star Wars special in order to get credit for the animators, this year they’re left off entirely, so MacFarlane’s ego is being boosted at the expense of the show’s direction.

The Sophomores Triumph

No one was quite sure what would happen with Breaking Bad, a second year show that won Emmys last year but without much support around it. Well, we have our answer: although snubbed out of both directing and writing, the series picked up a nomination for Drama Series, and Aaron Paul snuck into the highly competitive Supporting Actor (Drama) category for his work on the show, in addition to Bryan Cranston’s nomination for Lead Actor. Damages also impressed, delivering nominations for William Hurt (undeserved, but whatever), Rose Byrne, Glenn Close, Ted Danson (Guest), as well as Series and Directing nods.

The Freshmen Fail

True Blood had a real shot at some awards love, but it was empathically shut out of the proceedings: it’ll probably contend with United States of Tara for best Title Sequence, but with no Drama Series or Lead Actress love, it’s clear the Emmys didn’t find its vampire story appealing. That’s unfortunate for the show, but it’s a trend: no Freshman series broke into the series categories, and only Simon Baker (The Mentalist) and Toni Colette (United States of Tara) made their way into the major categories.

HBO “Domination”

In a popular vote, nobody quite knew where HBO would end up, but the answer is in far better shape than people anticipated – although Mad Men and Breaking Bad have AMC as the new “it” network, HBO is still holding some cache. Not only did Big Love score a huge surprise nomination as the 7th contender in the Drama Series race, but Flight of the Conchords is honestly the biggest story of the awards. With a Comedy Series nomination, a shocking Lead Actor nomination for Jemaine Clement, plus both writing and directing nominations, the show blew onto the radar like it wasn’t struggling with growing pains in its second season. While everyone saw the show’s Carol Brown getting an Original Song nod, the love wasn’t anticipated. The network also performed well with In Treatment, which missed the Drama Series race but picked up three acting nods (Byrne, Davis, Wiest).

The Year of How I Met Your Mother

I let out an extremely girlish “Yay,” nearly dropping my computer, when How I Met Your Mother was listed as one of the nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series (and I even predicted it!). I know it has no chance in the category, but its nomination is a vindication of the highest order that voters went with the popular vote, and that it jumped from not even being in the Top 10 to being in the Top 7. I call it the Year of HIMYM, though, because Neil Patrick Harris has an open door to pick up an Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Comedy – long live Barney Stinson.

After the jump: Surprises! Snubs! Etc.!

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