Monday, October 28, 2013

Top Chef 10-03: Tom vs. Emeril: Turkeypocalypse

In the previous entry I wrote about how sports broadcasts do their best to take emerging, sometimes dissonant facts and pull them into a traditional narrative. Reality television does a similar thing, with the main difference being that the editor-writers of a reality TV show (even one that's entirely on the up-and-up) know how everything ends up before they start shaping events into a narrative. Because of this, reality TV creates a narrative not by using commentators or video packages to overlay a story on an unfolding event but by selectively presenting footage than suggests whatever narrative the show wants to present. It is a more convincing form of storytelling than sports, but perhaps a less intriguing one, as it offers less immediate ruptures and potential for viewer judgment [1].

Competition shows are a bit more restrained in what they can do than, say, Real Housewives or its ilk. At bottom they hinge on actual events whose results are mostly not predetermined – the editors can change how you feel about a contestant's elimination, but they can't go back and change who is eliminated. Top Chef is more interested than most in establishing its legitimacy, and all of the culinary experts that appear on the show are not about to compromise themselves by praising an obviously inferior dish. So while the writer-editors do their best to contort narratives around results while still keeping these narratives satisfying (and this is no small feat), there are still moments of rupture, where the events belie the narrative.

Also like sports, one of the main challenges for competition reality shows is making us give a damn about the success or failure of people we don't know. Making us care about eighteen unknown chefs is not too different from a Bellator broadcast or a boxing prelim trying to make us care about an irrelevant battle between journeymen. Traditional sports' response to this problem has always been to tap into city pride and regional rivalry. Top Chef and other reality competition shows take an approach more akin to fight sports, focusing on outsized personalities and feuds (like pro wrestling, presented as a sport even if it isn't really) and personal sob stories (like Bellator and a lot of sports journalism). Hence the maxim that if you suddenly start hearing a reality contestant's backstory, they're probably about to go.

We're still in the early goings of this season of Top Chef, and the question is how to differentiate between the mass of people in blue coats. Some people stand out for their personalities, their success in challenges, or their funny accent. Others fade into the background (did you know there was someone named Brooke on this show?). The previous episode added even more contestants, ones you might recognize from past seasons if you think hard enough. Season 10 of Top Chef has thus far used team challenges as a way to make the competition a bit more approachable. Not only does it result in fewer dishes and stories to keep track of, forcing competitors together generates some of the interpersonal drama that reality TV runs on.

Turkeypocalypse” adds to this by aligning the two competing teams with personalities the viewer is already familiar with, that of head judge Tom Colicchio and post-“Bam!”-era Emeril Lagasse. They both have large personalities and distinct culinary styles, and their rapport in the kitchen is a highlight of the episode. The addition of the judges adds an overarching narrative to this week's competition. Instead of being a clash between two randomly-chosen teams, it's a battle between two different visions of Thanksgiving embodied by two masters of their craft engaging in a friendly rivalry. The invocation of Thanksgiving also adds to the episode's narrative. It carries with it connotations of tradition, family bonding, American culture, and screaming fights with relatives [2]. The chefs are competing to recreate Thanksgiving, or at least the food of Thanksgiving, in a sterile professional environment. Their dishes are loaded with an extra level of meaning because they are linked to a holiday tradition – both the specific childhood memories that Tom and Emeril narrate and the ones that the presumed American audience holds. This might suggest why the holiday special has such a hallowed place in TV programming.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The episode begins (after the customary recap and credits [3]) with a Quickfire challenge that's mostly disconnected from the meat of the episode. There's something impressive in how the episode, like most Top Chef episodes, is pared down to nothing but challenges. Most competition shows would include a few minutes of the contestants hanging out in the house (they always have to share a house in these things), talking about how they feel after the last elimination, and so on. This appears only briefly on Top Chef, with many episodes dispensing with it altogether, further suggesting the show's desire to put itself forward as a legitimate competition.

The parade of guest judges for the challenges also helps to add to that legitimacy. This week's Quickfire, for instance, is judged by Dana Cowen, editor of Food & Wine Magazine. Here we can see something of a mutual reinforcement of legitimacy. Top Chef legitimates Food & Wine by presenting it as everything it claims to be: an impartial authority which watches over the artistic and entirely unproblematic world of high cuisine. Top Chef also exposes Food & Wine to a broader, Bravo-watching audience who has no reason not to take its claims at face value. On the other hand, Food & Wine legitimates Top Chef by bestowing whatever prestige it has on it[4] and by authenticating it as a culinary competition and not just one of those trashy reality shows. The same process happens with every chef or food critic that appears on the show.

(There's also some Kindle Fire product placement in here, if you think I'm being too cynical.)

The actual challenge involves each contestant cooking a different type of dumpling, having been presented with a choice of 17 dumplings (using the term loosely) from around the world. There's an undeniable educational aspect to this challenge, as the audience (and the chefs) learn about how each culture puts its own spin on a simple concept. At the same time, there's a fair bit of exoticism here, as the obscurity of these dumplings is played for humour. The idea of Kazakh cuisine, for instance, is treated as impossibly wacky. Sheldon remarks “I didn't know that was a real country”, probably thinking of Borat. Carla just takes a wild guess at what her dumpling, fufu, is supposed to be.

Top Chef often uses Quickfires as ways to foreshadow the elimination challenge, and “Turkeypocalypse” follows this formula. Kuniko's problem with time, which will ultimately send her home, is first displayed in the Quickfire. Making a Japanese dumpling she knows very well, Kuniko is unable to get her food on the plate before the timer goes off. 

In some ways Kuniko's failure here is simply part of the artifice of the challenge. Time is obviously important in a real restaurant kitchen, but not at the point where taking two extra minutes is as bad as not cooking anything at all. The fact that Kuniko has a Michelin star in real life suggests to me that problems with sticking to the time limit hasn't hindered her outside of the artificial environment of Top Chef. Still, she gets a fairer deal than Brooke, who doesn't get a share of the pantry's flour and is unable to make a wrapper for her dumplings due to no fault of her own. Maybe she should have tried convincing Carla that fufu didn't use flour.

Fair or unfair, the challenge ends with Josie standing on top, which actually proves to be critical to the episode's final outcome. We then head into the Thanksgiving cook-off. There's no attempt to create drama via the division of teams – it's a simple division based on who is standing where. Other reality shows would look to add an interpersonal element by doing, say, a gym class style pick'em. But as much as it loves its interpersonal drama, usually playing out via endless stew room arguments, Top Chef is still questing for the mythic beast of legitimacy, and maybe the producers figure letting cast members' personal relationships shape the challenge to such a great extent is a bridge too far.

As much as the episode previews and title tease a Tom vs. Emeril showdown, the two don't really compete. Mainly Tom and Emeril just get feted, as all the cheftestants stand around reverently and listen to them talk about how Thanksgiving Should Be, then talk in confessionals about how amazing it is to learn Emeril's gumbo recipes. Even the blocking of these scenes imbues the judges with a kind of higher power. They set the menu and do a bit of early cooking, but ultimately it's up to the two teams to do the real work, as it should be. This is really a variation on a fairly standard challenge for Top Chef where the chefs have to make a special dinner (wedding/birthday/bar mitzvah/random party) for someone and appeal directly to that person's tastes. Usually these people are celebrities, but sometimes they're just randoms who are probably related to a Bravo producer. “Turkeypocalypse” bridges the gap by having the guests of honour be “Bravo-lebrities”.

These challenges are really all about the power of recall, and how a taste can become associated with a memory or emotion. This might seem like a trivial subject but hey, Proust wrote a 4000-page novel about it. As I mentioned above, holiday food is an especially rich ground for recall. As such, the chefs are behind the eight ball here, as they have to create food which outdoes the glorified memories of Tom and Emeril. They also have to add the sheen of fine dining and perhaps some innovation to traditional comfort food without undoing its status as comfort food. It's perhaps inevitable that they mostly fail.

The failures are fairly evenly distributed amongst the teams, which makes evaluating the challenge as a team competition difficult. Since this is ultimately an individual competition it's not a problem, but it does render the framework of the episode ever so slightly askew. Each dish is associated with a kind of procedural narrative, where proper actions in the beginning ensue proper results, and small mistakes in the early going spiral into catastrophe. Of course, some of these narratives are small to the point of nonexistent, but one can imagine a two-hour version of the show in which, say, Brooke gets a full plotline. The ones that we have here are edited together in a cacophonous kitchen sequence. The effect of cutting rapidly between different individuals and dishes, as well as between different camera angles and head-on interviews, is that very simple stories (Kristen cooks a good dish!) don't grow repetitive. The stories compete spatially as well as temporally, with there being ever-present wrangling for and complaining about

As the chef who is about to be eliminated, Kuniko's story should theoretically be front and centre, but most reality shows try to be a little shrewder about showcasing the soon-to-be-departed contestant. Kuniko's story here is a bit akin to the newspaper storyline in the fifth season of The Wire, as what's most important here is what's not shown. We see her running around the kitchen and helping other chefs with their dishes. When Kristen asks about Kuniko's dish she bluntly responds “Haven't touched”.

There's a lot of value to what Kuniko does in the kitchen in this episode, and it arguably makes sense in a team of eight people for some to take subordinate roles. But Top Chef is a show that's all about the auteurs of cooking, the ones who are perceived to be the real creators behind the food at a restaurant. In a previous season a contestant was eliminated for not putting his own dish first, with the rationale that “This is Top Chef, not Top Sous-Chef”. Despite the prevalence of team challenges the order of the day is creative selfishness. All creative art requires some self-centeredness, or at least a willingness to leave the rest of the world to its own devices for 10000 hours, but in the culinary world in particular the cult of the auteur chef erases the underpaid and overworked people that are usually responsible for actually cooking the food you eat at that five-star restaurant. Top Chef plays into that absolutely with its image of the kitchen as a place of solitary creation. It is Kuniko's failure to fill the role of the auteur, along with her inability to cook a potato, that gets her the boot in “Turkeypocalypse”.

Even though she has immunity, Josie gets the real “loser's edit” in this episode with her disastrous attempt to cook a turkey. From the beginning we can sense that this is sort of a lost cause: she agrees to take on this job because she has immunity, suggesting that she's already aware that there's a strong possibility of failure. In the accompanying interviews she chuckles about her failures, standing in contrast to the stern craftsmanship which CJ brings to his turkey. What unfolds is a comedy of errors, with Josie putting the turkey on the wrong shelf of the oven, burning the outside, and then overcompensating for this mistake and undercooking the meat. This narrative is more strictly functional and procedural: Josie fails to go through the proper procedures with the right attitude, and as such is responsible for her team's failure.

These are fairly simple narratives, but because there are so many of them, your average episode of Top Chef reiterates its central points multiple times. We see a mistake happen before us, see some talking-head interviews talking about the mistake, have Tom breeze through the kitchen and comment on the mistake, have the judges talk about the mistake while they eat the food, and finally have the contestant confronted with their mistake at Judge's Table. (This is not even including the “coming up next” commercial bumpers which are endemic to reality programs). Somehow Top Chef usually keeps this all from being too repetitive, probably because there are so many mini-narratives up in the air that they never linger for long, and because the judges have enough personality and charisma that their reiteration of the plot is still entertaining. This repetition also adds a smooth structure to the episode.

Overall the quality of the dishes ends up mixed (or so we're told), but Emeril's team is declared the losers based largely off Josie's badly-cooked turkey. We hear the judges' comments twice, once as they eat the food at first and once as they formally judge the contestants, but the two settings are drastically different. When the judges are served this distaff Thanksgiving dinner in a buzzing restaurant, it has the air of an actual dinnertime conversation, albeit a particularly judgmental one. They riff off each other, talk in kind of gossipy tones, and don't sound like they're about to hang whoever cooked this beef.

Spatially, the official Judge's Table set almost mimics the dining experience. The chefs are on their feet, isolated, while the judges are sitting down and operate as a group. But visually the setting is entirely different – a dark room with hazy overhead lighting instead of a well-lit restaurant filled with warm conversation. The judge's comments operate according to a more obviously formal system, with each contestant being ripped apart in turn before a final decision is ultimately made. The whole thing has the air of a Kafkaesque trial in which anything the defendants say can and will be used against them, and any lack of response will be taken for criminal apathy. Instead of the tender, exploratory music of the dinner scene, we have background music that sounds like a sinister wind. The loser's end of Judge's Table opens with sliding smash cuts of the four imperiled contestants, combined with the sound of a screen door shutting an inch away from your ear. That part is actually kind of painful.

(There's also a Judge's Table to determine the winner, but it's much less striking and carries less narrative weight. Competition shows always privilege failure over success in their structure.)

Josie gets beat up a lot verbally in this sequence, and it's made clear that if she didn't have immunity she would be gone. Reality TV thrives on its clowns, the people who are simultaneously exciting and aggravating to watch, and Josie fits into this archetype well. When a clown does well, they're a fan favourite, but when they do poorly they're humiliated with a particular relish, especially if said clown is a woman. Josie tastes both sides of this dichotomy in this episode. The challenge's winner, batty Italian stereotype Carla, is also a clown character and is successful here only to be cut down shortly. These are the characters that stick out the most in the early episodes, but at the cost of their own credibility, and they almost never win.

I shouldn't make it out to sound like Top Chef draws entirely on personality conflicts, as there's a lot of attention paid to cooking technique and the science of food. Tyler is interrogated at Judge's Table as to whether he tempered his gumbo. I have no idea what that means, and Top Chef is okay with that. Its strength is its ability to turn these technical questions into narratives, so that Kuniko's undercooked potato is not just an undercooked potato but a sign of her overly-passive personality. But the technical elements, including jargon that is sometimes hard to understand for culinary neophytes like myself, help ground the series and prevent it from being a drama-fest.

A drama-fest is exactly what erupts after Kuniko's departure. John Tesar, who boasts about being the “Most Hated Chef in Dallas”, remarks that “as a chef, you can do potatoes in your sleep”. Other people read a lot into his statements, seeing them as disrespectful, and a noisy argument erupts. This scene is included after Kuniko's good-byes and exit interview, and seems like almost an unnatural appendage to the episode – like the monster crawling out of the lake at the end of a horror movie.

There's something to be said for the way reality TV shoots arguments. In a scripted drama series, an argument would be carefully constructed, with clear stakes and probably a choice one-liner or two. But in reality TV arguments are tangled, chaotic, sometimes repetitive and generally pointless. This scene is not really artistically coherent – several characters jump in only for one line, and what John says isn't really bad enough to make him an out-and-out villain – but it directly conveys the sense that tensions are spiraling out of control in unexpected directions. The form of the argument, and its visceral unpleasantness, replace the role content would play in a scripted scene. We don't come away from this scene thinking in terms of heroes and villains: Josh jumps in to defend Kuniko, but he still comes across as an ass. We also don't come away thinking that both sides had a point, because really nobody has a point. Instead, it is the argument itself that is the villain, the unpleasantness lingering on the idyllic design of the competition.

Of course, all of this article ignores one of the primary draws of Top Chef, which is the images of the food. The show frequently includes pictures and quick cuts that are pure food porn with no narrative purpose. My training is mainly in words and not images, so I've mostly left the signification of these shots alone. It is interesting, however, that we get to see the food in various forms throughout the challenge. We see the raw meat being sliced, and then eventually it winds up as a perfectly-composed high cuisine dish by the end. This is the same sense of process that informs the show's narrative. One wonders if it can also be seen as a metaphor for the creation of Top Chef: taking a big bunch of raw footage, chopping it up into little pieces, covering it in narratives and received ideas, and finally presenting it to a discerning audience.

[1]One interesting exception occurred recently on Big Brother, where a number of contestants' racist remarks and otherwise offensive behaviour was not included in the TV broadcast but were available to viewers of the 24/7 online stream. Viewers objected to this and as a result of the controversy CBS began including the offensive behaviour in the actual Big Brother episodes. I don't watch the show, but it would be interesting to know how the racists in question were being presented. Did someone who was edited to be a hero become a villain because of what happened outside of the main episodes? Either way, it would seem to be a prime example of viewers finding ruptures in non-scripted programming that lead to oppositional readings, as well as one of the most clear-cut instances of audiences forcing a show to change the plot.

[2]Being Canadian, I'm a bit out of the Thanksgiving loop. We have a version of it in October (who has a harvest festival in late November?) but there are no parades or apocalyptic sales – my family usually has a large but quiet dinner. Thanksgiving is really a relic of agrarian society, when harvest season was automatically a carnivalesque event. I guess in America the harvesting of vegetables has been replaced by the capitalist harvesting of commercial goods – but that's an essay for another time.

[3]The credits sequence for season 10 are mostly the same as those of previous seasons, including the weird “ooh yeah” song, but the usual run-down of contestants is replaced by a couple of goofy group shots. This may signal this season's focus on group challenges and team dynamics, at least in the early going.

[4]I'm not much of a foodie, so I really have no idea whether Food & Wine is taken seriously or is considered a joke by people in the know. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking a magazine seriously nowadays.

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