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Too Much On the Plate: The Bitter Taste of Top Chef Season 7

Too Much on the Plate: The Bitter Taste of Top Chef Season 7

July 22nd, 2010

Based on the first six episodes of Top Chef’s seventh season, I’m not convinced that the Magical Elves (the show’s producers) were watching the same show that I was last year.

Top Chef’s sixth season was, by all accounts, a triumph: four chefs went into the semi-finals cooking some absolutely stellar food, each in a position where they would have deserved to win the competition, and each representing a different style of cooking. The challenges were solid, the Las Vegas setting was put to solid use, and outside of some justifiable complaints about Toby Young the judging was pretty spot on. It was a season without any major controversies, and which seemed to verify my conclusion I had come to after watching the first four seasons in a marathon last summer: Top Chef, like The Amazing Race before it, is a solid foundation which will vary each year depending on the caliber of chefs within the competition.

And yet, it seems that the Magical Elves felt that there was some magic missing: either because they were concerned with the caliber of chefs they had assembled, or because they felt that viewers were no longer responding to the series in the same fashion, the show’s production team has gone out of their way to mess with a good thing this year. Now, on the surface, you may expect me to call them out for deliberately breeding conflict between the chefs, something which has happened more naturally in past seasons and which is one of my least favourite parts of the series when it isn’t pre-existing (as it was between brothers Michael and Bryan last year).

However, the bigger problem is that the show’s production is undermining several cardinal rules of reality competition programming, rules which Top Chef used to follow with expert proficiency. While it has been possible for good chefs to be sent home before weak ones in the past, this year’s challenges seem explicitly designed to remove any opportunity the judges would have to give a chef a second chance, to allow them to bounce back as opposed to sending a chef who will remain mediocre throughout the rest of the competition. Instead, the producers have seized control of the competition in the most backwards of fashions, in that they actually cede any semblance of control when it really matters most to the rule and logic of a series once based on the food rather than the folly.

It’s a season that feels as if it’s been designed by the Elves who make cookies rather than those who make reality television, and it’s managing to take what might otherwise have been a perfectly solid season and turning it into something the series has never been before: a reality series uncertain of its own identity.

Which used to be about food.

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Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry

Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry

July 8th, 2010

I have yet to blog about this year’s season of Top Chef’s seventh season, and I really wish that I wasn’t doing so under these particular circumstances, but “Room Service” was such a failure that I have a few thoughts on where precisely it went wrong (although Scott Tobias has a more complete rundown of the episode at The A.V. Club). The notion of introducing a tournament-style competition in order to send two chefs home isn’t the worst idea, as they’re trying to create competition between the chefs (especially after the hyper-competitive elements last season) and this forces Kenny and Angelo’s rivalry to the forefront and draws further tension from the various chefs. However, the way in which that competition was actually executed failed to actually highlight the weakest chefs, instead punishing good chefs for small mistakes while rewarding weaker chefs for a single quality dish in what was an otherwise disastrous performance.

And while I want to highlight a few problems, one thing I want to focus on specifically is a lack of feedback within the process, which was also central to part of last night’s episode of Work of Art, which I want to discuss briefly as well.

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Breaking Bad – “Abiquiu”

“Abiquiu”

May 30th, 2010

“She saw something new every time she painted it.”

It’s been three weeks since I last checked in with Breaking Bad, which is unfortunate but not that surprising: I was busy graduating two Sundays ago, and then last week anyone without screeners was out of luck if they were simultaneously a fan of both Breaking Bad and Lost. It’s particularly unfortunate since both “Kafkasque” and “Fly” were pretty fantastic. To briefly offer my perspective on each, I loved the parallel between Jesse and Walt each watching their confidantes spinning a web of lies in “Kafkaesque,” in particular Walt’s reaction to Skyler’s ability to pull off the gambling alibi with such precision. And as for “Fly,” I thought Rian Johnson did a fantastic job of taking a purposefully contained – for budgetary reasons – episode and and allow it to be defined by its sense of atmosphere. The show tiptoed dangerously close to Walt revealing the truth about Jane’s death, and by embracing that tension without exaggerating it the series created an episode which remained definitely “Breaking Bad” without the shoot-outs and chaos the show has used so effectively this season.

“Abiquiu” remains a fairly low-key affair, as characters plot out their next moves more than necessarily finding themselves in the middle of a firefight, but I say this in the best possible way. While the thrills of “One Minute” are part of the series’ identity, it is often better in those quiet moments where character are forced to live with their actions or where taking the next step means crossing a threshold they might not be able to cross. In many ways, we’ve seen these characters at this point before, but each time Breaking Bad brings us to a crossroads we see something new in these characters, whether it be confirmation of what we’ve always believed or a new facet of their personality emerging – and frankly, at this point, the show can paint that door as many times as it wants as far as I’m concerned.

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