"It's an arms race of foulness."
I’ve been an Iron Chef fan since before the Food Network wormed its way into basic cable. I’ve watched and re-watched every episode of Top Chef ever aired; Top Chef Masters, too. I’ve even gotten hooked on The Next Food Network Star.
But Hell’s Kitchen, whose sixth season premiered last night—I hate.
Even as I sit typing these words, hours after the show, I can feel myself seething with rage. It’s not only that I think that Hell’s Kitchen is a terribly crafted program. It’s that it feeds off the very worst of humanity—sure, drawing out the ugliest parts of its competitors, but getting the audience caught up in it, too.
Oh, it's not just the vulgarity—obscenities bleeped at least 15 times in the first three minutes, after which I stopped counting. It's not just the in-your-face chefs trumpeting their superiority, threatening to punch the maître d', or screaming at others for their own mistakes.
It's that the contestants, who really should be called characters, play into it, too—all trying to one-up the others, to become the nastiest, most vulgar, most extreme competitor Hell's Kitchen has ever seen. They try to out-Ramsay Ramsay, who is already unpleasant enough for an entire network's worth of television. It's an arms race of foulness.
And—the true sin, in my opinion—Hell's Kitchen has ceased to be entertaining.
- The tension is completely manufactured. Is there suspense in watching shrimp deveined? No, and on other shows this might be a three-minute competition. But on Hell's Kitchen it's strung out over several commercial breaks, with breathless commentary, minute-by-minute recaps, and swelling INTENSITY MUSIC letting us know that something important is about to happen. If you're relying on the soundtrack to build excitement, it's because the show doesn't have it.
- The contestants are talentless hacks. (Or at least they're made to seem that way. I was startled to see how badly Andy Husbands came off, considering I'm a fan of his restaurant, Tremont 647.) But in the heat of competition, these people can't cook. A single episode gave us raw chicken, raw scallops, raw shrimp, raw sea bass, burnt sea bass, and burnt chicken. They can't segment a grapefruit. Half of them can't devein a shrimp.
- If they do have talent, there's never a chance to show it. In the second episode aired last night—there were two, God help us—the contestants were, per usual, entirely at Gordon's mercy, trembling line cooks fearing (or out-bitching, but we'll get to that) their obscenity-spouting overlord. With so little room for creativity, á la Top Chef, how do we get to know these characters as chefs? We don't.
- The contestants are horrible human beings. Or, again, they're made to seem that way. But they're sexist ("Women are the best at cleaning!") and crass ("Eat a bag of shit, dude") and often borderline delusional. ("I'm the best cook here!" announced the contestant who served a pregnant woman raw shrimp). Even in their triumphant moments ("I'm psyched to go on a fuckin' yacht, bro!") they couldn't be more repellant. It's hard to watch a television show where you hate every single one of the characters. Whom does one root for?
- The Ramsay-worship gets old, fast. Yes, he's a globally successful chef with sixteen Michelin stars to his name. One of the contestants referred to Ramsay as "the greatest chef in the world," which, on some level, we're clearly meant to accept. But that's a pretty tall claim, especially when the only skill he displays in Hell's Kitchen is the improbable endurance of his vocal cords. Even when he yells at competitors, there's rarely substantial criticism to be heard.
- Insults aren't funny; funny insults are funny. If we learned anything from Toby Young in last season's Top Chef, it's that Brits have a knack for elaborate, scathing criticism. But Ramsay's vocabulary rarely rises above playground taunts. "Pathetic." "Dumbo." "Get your eyes checked." "Piss off." Momentarily offensive, but soon tiresome, then just fading into static.
- It's brute conflict, not competition. Because it's never about who performs the worst—it's about who nominates them, how much they bitch beforehand, and who pisses off Gordon Ramsay. At the end of last night's episode, not only did we not find out who lost the challenge, but we didn't find out whether Joseph smacked one to Ramsay—which was, the promos promised us, the climax of the episode. In fact, it wasn't even clear why the powder-keg contestant got so up in arms. Commercial-break cliffhangers are one thing, but to not finish out a reality show episode seems like a pretty cheap ploy.
I'm well aware that Hell's Kitchen isn't intended as a skill-based cooking competition, that it's about knives clashing and curses flying. Hell's Kitchen is to Top Chef what WWE Raw is to martial arts. Perhaps I just don't understand the appeal of swearing, bickering, backstabbing pseudo-chefs wielding sharp objects. But then again, I don't like WWE Raw, either.
Postscript: My brother, also my roommate, a rabid Hell's Kitchen fan, and the reason that I'll be coerced into watching this God-awful program instead of the simultaneously-aired NYC Prep, wishes to note that not all Hell's Kitchen episodes are so riotous and crude. "Later on in the show," he says, "when all of Gordon's cannon fodder has been cleared out, the show turns from 'Who's not the worst line cook this week?' to determining who can actually design and execute a menu." Fair enough. But first impressions die hard.