Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Reality of Reality TV

I have picked up a reality game show. I know, after all my railing on The Biggest Loser, I turn around and willingly watch a reality game show. I say reality game show because it is about real people being themselves and playing games or competing for monetary prizes. In The Biggest Loser it is a quarter of a million dollars. In Survivor it is a million dollars. This is in comparison to true reality shows such as Real World or Keeping Up With The Kardashians, where there is no prize at the end of each show or season.

The show I have started watching is Chopped on the Food Network. The premise of the show as follows—chefs must create meals using a basketful of ingredients within a certain amount of time. Four plates need to be completed for each meal. There are three meals—appetizer, entrée, and dessert. After each meal the dishes are judged and one chef is “chopped”. You begin with four chefs making appetizers, then three chef making entrees, and then two chefs making dessert. The combination of ingredients required can vary widely from instant grits to sea urchin. And usually the combinations are bizarre, such as scallops, instant grits, tamarind, and snow peas. With that sort of premise, the show has to be interesting. And it is. But it is also frustrating after you have seen about ten episodes.

The problem with Chopped is that the rules have not been well defined. In the beginning, Ted Allen, the host of the show, would say that the given ingredients must all be used, but could be used a little or a lot. And the chef competitors did just that. After all, should you expect a dish with equal parts hummus, cocoa powder, and celery root? But the judges always criticized the chef contestants for not making all the ingredients share the stage equally. In one episode a contestant actually calls Ted Allen out on that point after getting berated by the judges. In the next episode the only stipulation mentioned is that all the given ingredients must be used. And in subsequent episodes the judges also no longer comment on equal use of the ingredients.

Another problem with Chopped stems from the players of the show. Aside from Ted Allen you have three chef judges and four chef contestants. So you have seven chefs in a small room. And chefs are not humble people. It is the nature of the profession. There is a hierarchy in every kitchen and you do not climb up that ladder by being humble. Put seven of these egos in the same room and have three of them criticize the other four and it becomes a very awkward situation. The only way to really defuse that unbearable clash of egos is to have an episode where the chef judges compete as contestants so they can fully understand what it is like for the contestants.

The third problem with Chopped was only realized after many episodes had already been filmed. Contestants only have twenty minutes to create an appetizer, and thirty minutes each for entrée and dessert. If you factor in prep time, that is not a lot of time for cooking and plating. So a lot of different techniques are impossible to use. Instead, you see over and over again the ragout sauce, the napoleon dessert, the salad with vinaigrette dressing. That means that after twenty episodes you watch the show more to see what ridiculous combination of ingredients they come up with next and how the chefs combine them. Every once in a while someone will be brave enough to try making gnocchi in half an hour, or granita, but that is not often. The show then loses its learning aspect very quickly.

I do enjoy the ridiculous ingredients and learning about new ones each time. I also know that I have never had a Napoleon and have absolutely no interest in ever trying one now thanks to Chopped.