Friday, March 4, 2016

Top Chef 13-09: Restaurant Wars, Part 1

Thirteen seasons and ten years in, Top Chef has lost quite a bit of its luster.  Like all competitive reality shows that last long enough, it seems resigned to an eternity of good-enough, cheap-enough television that is inoffensive but no one feels strongly enough.  There are certainly worse fates for TV shows and the people who create them, but it seems worth noting that smart TV-critic types no longer talk about the show, Bravo has stopped pumping out spin-offs, and among fans the feel is that the show peaked with season 6, or maybe 8.  But hey, they always have Restaurant Wars, right?

By this point Restaurant Wars has become the most hallowed part of the Top Chef season, with a reputation for conflict, controversy, and good-looking food -- all the things that cooking competitions promise.  At the same time, it often seems like the most reasonable challenge of the season, asking the chefs to do exactly what they do for a living, just on a much shorter timeframe.  In terms of structure, it marks the point in the season where the competition gets serious and we start to actually know who all of the chefs are.  This reputation has obviously influenced the chef-testants, who bust out a pre-composed song for the occasion[1].  People talk about having "make it to Restaurant Wars" as a goal, and great the challenge with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.  This is the benefit of self-mythology: for those within the show-universe it seems real.

Naturally, Top Chef has recently taken to exploiting the reputation of Restaurant Wars by stretching it out to two episodes.  This violates the near-Aristotlean formal unity of reality competition: every episode contains one challenge (plus usually a Quickfire), and at the end someone is eliminated, so there's a natural narrative arc leading to a one-on-one showdown.  The Amazing Race has pulled this trick for years now, generally resulting in anticlimax and the feeling that one episodes' worth of content has been stretched out into two.  This year's edition of the challenge deals with this problem by splitting not just the episode but the challenge into two parts, a lunch and a dinner course.  This gives the episode as a stand-alone narrative a kind of coherency.  No one is eliminated, but at the end it seems clear that one team has "won" the lunch portion of the challenge, with the other unable to complete their service do to poor time management.

Splitting the challenge in two actually proves to be a fairly ingenious move.  In previous editions of the challenge, the focus of both the episode and the judges was on the chefs who assumed the roles of head chef and front of the house.  Those that won usually got the individual award, while those that lost were usually eliminated.  In one instance, the head chef went home for what appeared to be clearly the mistakes of a subordinate.  The chefs that filled this role also became the focal points of the narrative, leaving other chefs marginalized in the challenge that was supposed to mark the point where everyone became a major character.  This change makes the challenge both a fairer competition and better drama, to say nothing of letting Top Chef stretch it out for two episodes.

The aforementioned drama, however, has been a bit lacking this season.  In part this is do to the problem that any long-running competition show faces: there are only so many great undiscovered chefs/singers/fashion designers/tattoo artists/whatever in America, and out of that group there are only so many willing to participate in an intense and invasive reality show, and out of that group there are only so many with big personalities who make for compelling television, and after several years you or some other show has probably got to them all.  Different shows react to this limitation in different ways.  For instance, Project Runway still fields casts with bold personalities by largely not caring if they can design non-hideous clothing.  Top Chef has taken a different approach by selecting talent over charisma -- the contestant pool featured a gaggle of James Beard nominees, which I gather is impressive.  The result is that its credibility as a competition is still in tact, but viewers generally find it hard to care about anyone besides maybe thinking that Philip is a bit of a tool.  Even when split into teams, there's little to pick between two restaurants with fairly generic names (District LA and Palette) and vaguely-defined new American cuisine.

A schoolyard pick'em fails to generate much drama, other than setting up a redemption arc for last-picked Isaac, but it does create two different group dynamics.  There's always sort of a Goofus-and-Gallant arc to Restaurant Wars, and this year is no exception, but there is a bit of editorial subversion as to who exactly is who.  At first glance, District LA appears to be cohesive, despite including two chefs (Philip and Kwame) who have butted heads throughout the competition, while the members of Palate disagree about the direction of their restaurant before finally delegating responsibility.  However, by the time lunch service starts, it becomes clear that Palate is the one doing everything right.

The episode's narrative focuses on one decision made by District LA's head chef Jeremy, specifically to hold everyone else's orders while focusing on the judges.  Framing the chef's errors as personality flaws or at least strategic errors makes a much better narrative for Top Chef than the minute differences in cooking techniques, and here the episode pounces, having everyone and their mother comment on either the decision or how behind schedule District LA ends up as a result.  We are naturally repulsed by this decision, as despite our love of bourgeois cooking shows we desire equal treatment and would not like to have our own dinners delayed for any hoity-toity judges [2].  As strategy, this is uncertain -- there's no tallying of comment cards from diners or any other way for ordinary customers to have an impact on the decision, so the judges (who often act as the most petulant diners imaginable) are in fact the only one that matters.  Then again, given the always uncertain criteria for Top Chef challenges, it's hard to say that neglecting the other diners won't hurt either.

The actual food for this episode is largely unspectacular.  The cinema-of-attractions side of Top Chef is seeing fancy dishes with foams and reductions presented in cinematic close-up, looking positively sensuous.  The food in this episode fills that role, but the judges are unimpressed, describing it as somewhat safe.  After lunch, they declare that honours are even, conveniently setting up next week's dinner course as the deciding round.

This leaves us with something of a split ending.  We're told by the judges that the two teams came away from the first round just about even.  Visually, however, we're presented with District LA scrambling to fill their tickets before eventually realizing that due to their previous decisions they can't finish service -- a first, as far as I can recall.  Meanwhile, Palate is firmly in the Gallant role, calmly cleaning up their kitchen as the other team panics.  Regardless of the results of the competition, the individual episode's narrative concludes with a decisive winner and a decisive loser.  And yet, in next week's decisive episode, the judges never bring up District L. A.'s failure to complete lunch service, making the drama of the first episode ultimately inconsequential.

Some have argued that this is the flaw of recent Top Chef, that the stories it tells via editing no longer make sense.  The argument goes that the show is so intent on surprising and misderecting us that the results of the competition seem divorced from the story we've been told throughout the episode, leaving the audience confused and sometimes upset.  This culminated in the season 11 finale, where fans were largely outraged about the winner.  I'm more inclined to believe that the narratives are more uninteresting than nonsensical, that even the best editing would strain to get us invested in a clash between bland chefs temporarily creating bland restaurants.  Whatever the fault is, Restaurant Wars still seems capable of creating the contemporary definition of drama, namely conflict.  The difficulty is creating classically-defined drama -- a logical and compelling story.

[1] Notably, they burst into song before the challenge is announced.  This means that they know the challenge is coming just by how many contestants are left, which suggests both that the contestants are aware of the larger narrative structure of the season and how formulaic Top Chef has become.

[2] Although I'm pretty sure that the "diners" here eat for free, so we probably wouldn't complain.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Independent Lens: Autism in Love

This is going to be a little more personal than most of what I write here.

As a teenager, I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a diagnosis that officially no longer exists and is now part of a wide "autism spectrum", possibly because of the Internet.  There's a history of autism on both sides of my family, and the shoe seems to fit personality-wise, but it's never been a part of myself that I've felt very comfortable with, and these days I mostly don't think about it.  Part of it is that most autistic people I've met seem to be worse off than I am, and adopting it as an identity makes me feel like I'm co-opting their disability.  Part of it might just be that I don't want to be disabled, and that if I squirrel into my own little world I can pretend that my behaviour and desires are normal, or at least a normal part of the spectrum of humanity (and, of course, they are).  The public image of autism, when not a quirky TV detective, is that of a mute child who inflicts noble suffering on their family, the type of child who can perhaps be eliminated by fun-runs or vaccine boycotts.  Who would want to identify with that?

With that in mind, I approached "Autism in Love" -- a part of PBS's Independent Lens series -- with equal parts interest and caution.  I may have been able to suppress thoughts of my own autism over the years, but the topic of love cannot be suppressed in a society obsessed with it, and in particular love that takes the form of sexually monogamous cohabiting couples.  For the autistic it can be difficult navigating friendships, let alone romance, and a relationship can seem like a danger to our self-sustaining routines.  Recently I've been wondering if coupledom and romantic love are even things that I want, and if it might make sense to identify as asexual.  This is immediately followed by the idea that such thoughts are nothing more than sour grapes, sops for my own inability to get a date.

"Autism in Love" sort of deals with the issues that have been on my mind recently, and sort of doesn't.  All of the autistic people profiled seem to have clearly decided on romantic love as an important goal, even if this goal leads to anguish for at least one of the interview subjects.  The film profiles four autistic people with different relationships to love and at different stages of their lives -- one searching for love, two in a relationship with an uncertain future, one at the end of a long marriage.  They also span the spectrum of sociality, from the presentable if slightly icy Lindsey to the almost-stereotypical Stephen, who speaks like a child but can bark out answers to every question on Jeopardy!.  This could all feel a little schematic, but there is a tenderness to the film that insists on its subjects' uniqueness as more than data points on a spectrum or different stages in one over-arching narrative.  If you haven't seen it, the film is available at the address below for those in the US:

The autistic couple, Dave and Lindsey, are the closest thing to normal we get.  Both are young people with jobs, living together and pondering their next steps.  Autism is presented as a sort of obstacle to both people expressing themselves, but for the most part these are perfectly mundane relationship issues -- one partner wants more commitment (i. e. marriage), while the other is in love but unsure.  It's just that this time there are analogies to quantum physics.  If anything, their blunt and analytic modes of expressing themselves leads to less evasion of the central issue.  This storyline ends in a happy resolution, with Dave proposing marriage at the end of the film.  There's a sense of hope in this scene, not just for Lindsey and Dave but for all autistic people and the very possibility of autistic love.

The presence of the camera seems more uncomfortable in this storyline than the others.  Whereas Stephen and Vinny largely address the camera, we see several scenes of Dave and Lindsey interacting with each other as though the documentary crew wasn't there -- Lindsey coming home from work, her meeting with a friend, and of course the climactic proposal scene.  Of course, documentaries have long employed similar techniques, but the switches between fly-on-the-wall and fly-in-the-soup are noticeable.  Perhaps it is because Dave and Lindsey, rather than being questioned by the filmmaker, question each other about much the same subjects.  Still, perhaps the most formally intriguing moment in a film that is generally formally conventional is when Dave, after repeated questioning by Lindsey, says that he doesn't want to have this discussion on camera.  It's a moment that makes you abruptly aware that these people are being filmed, and raises the question of how much is not being discussed on camera, and how much should be.  Like all documentary subjects, Dave and Lindsey are showing a certain part of themselves for the camera, and the inclusion of this one small line is a quiet but needed awareness that this is definitely a partial view.

The proposal scene, however, is when this staginess becomes a benefit.  After all, a marriage proposal is always a spectacle, and one that is always informed by the countless proposals with swelling music we've seen in movies and TV shows.  So Dave stages this scene, but it is filtered through the autistic communication barrier in a frankly beautiful way.  The two begin by having the same kind of abstract conversation about their relationship we've already seen a couple times, one that threatens to end in the same stalemate.  Then Dave gets down on his knees and manages to get out what he had decided to see.  Lindsey takes a seemingly agonizing time to respond, and one remembers her note to the interviewer at the beginning of the film that she might take a minute to think before answering any question.  And then, finally, she agrees.  Director Matt Fuller notes in an interview that this scene, as neat a resolution as it offers, happened organically.  Even so, it's a nice synecdoche of the hope that the film offers -- that despite all of the barriers and inability to say what we mean, love is possible.

Stephen's story is not the beginning of a love story but the end of it.  When we first see Stephen, he appears every bit the autistic man we expect -- living with his parents, able to vocalize only simple thoughts, working a simple job at the post office.  It is only later, when we return to Stephen that we learn that he has been married for over a decade to a fairly neurotypical woman named Gita.  There's a bit of cruelty to this reveal, as its shock value rests on our assumption that someone like Stephen could being in a relationship is extraordinary.  The relationship seemingly violates our cultural idea that the two sides in a marriage should be equal -- Gita admits that part of the attraction of Stephen is that she feels like she doesn't have to work as hard to maintain their relationship.  In this sense, this is a genuinely non-normative relationship, and one that's refreshing to see on TV, especially between square middle-aged people.

It would have been nice to see some of the normal, everyday coexistence between Stephan and Gita, but by the time the film begins Gita is already in the late stages of cancer treatment.  As such, this plotline becomes a tragedy, with the happy life lived between people of different neurological stripes visible only through remnants and now-empty apartments.  The pathos here probably shouldn't feel so earned, but it does.  Late in the film, Stephen manages to choke out "Gita is dead.  Gita died", and for once his linguistic difficulties appear as an entirely comprehensible difficulty with the world.

The third story of the film, dealing with a single young man named Lenny, is perhaps more heartrending.  Lenny's difficulties are not holding onto love but finding it, and a possibly unhealthy fixation on getting a girlfriend as a way to demonstrate his normality.  These are difficulties that many autistic young men (like myself) can empathize with.  And yet, Lenny is a difficult character to embrace.  He acts hostile to both the people around him and his imagined lover, insisting that he would have to be superior to any girlfriend.  He despairs about his condition and wishes he had never been born autistic.  He is not about to be the posterboy for either the charities or the activists.

And yet it is precisely this aspect that makes his story the most fascinating.  Lenny is the dark side of autism, the one who suffers from his condition and the one who says the things others don't want to admit they think.  After all, how many men have a conscious or unconscious desire to dominate and feel superior to their romantic partners, but simply know better than to admit it?  How many people with physical or mental disabilities quietly wish to themselves that it was otherwise?  Lenny is the uncomfortable presence that forces us to admit truths that do not easily fit into narratives about disabilities -- including the fact that people with disabilities can sometimes act like assholes.

The filmmaking in this segment feels the roughest, the closest to cinema verite.  Lenny's long rant before his institutionalization, which the camera observes without comment, feels more film festival than PBS.  (Of course, the Independent Lens series theoretically encompasses both).  The resolution is not happy or hopeful -- while we may find the glow of love amidst sadness in Stephen's mourning for Gita, Lenny's new job at a grocery store doesn't feel the same way.  Maybe the thing that is most forbidden to admit about love is that some people never find it.

In the end, Autism in Love didn't really resolve my own questions and anxieties about love.  It demonstrated that love for autistic people is possible, but frequently treacherous -- although, is that really that different from love for neurotypical people?  Does one aspect of my self determine my relation to the world of romance?  This deserves more introspection, or maybe less.  But what Autism in Love did help me examine was autism, a part of my identity I find it hard to embrace.  The film highlights both the bright and rough parts of autism, and ultimately suggests a way through the difficulties to happiness.  Whether or not that happiness is love, I think that this hope is valuable.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Steven Universe 2-25: The Answer

I try not to get into the utilitarian questions of whether a show is good or bad here -- generally, if I'm following a show past its first few episodes I think it has at least some merit or point of interest.  But it must be said: Steven Universe is special.  Out of everything I watch, it's the only show I would describe as truly great, able to pack more meaning, humour and drama into 11 minutes than most shows manage in a season.  And while I'm equally reluctant to plot television on some linear scale of political progressiveness, the fact that there's a kid's adventure show that deals matter-of-factly with queer relationships and gender fluidity without ever feeling like a political project is pretty great.

The title "The Answer" suggests that this episode will be a sort of big reveal that solves everything, but it isn't.  It doesn't even really provide an emotional resolution.  The story of how Ruby and Sapphire became Garnet has not yet been revealed, but it also seems sort of irrelevant to how the characters interact now -- and if pressed, most people would probably have imagined something close to what the episode presents.  Instead, what is most revelatory about "The Answer" is the background details to the actual love story, which reveal and confirm much about the gemworld mythos.

Steven Universe is presented consistently through the titular character's perspective, which is to say from that of a child growing into adulthood.  Outside of the initial dozen episodes or so, we learn about the outside world when Steven does.  This mirrors adolescent experience.  Along with coming-of-age, there is a coming-of-understanding when we begin to learn about the outside world and how it came to be this way.  As a child, elementary history and geography are fairy stories -- the world is an extended stage for our own personal melodrama.  (Some people never get past this stage, I'm afraid to say).  But we do learn about the vastness of our world, sometimes from formal education but more memorably from when it intersects with and overwhelms our personal experience.  Because of this it's unsurprising that Steven only learns about Homeworld when it's about to crash down on our shows, and only knows bits and pieces of the long-ago war from his guardians' stories.

It is also not surprising, then, that Garnet's bedtime story inadvertently reveals the harshness of Homeworld's caste system.  It is an alien perspective in the truest sense, where societal position overtakes individual identity to the point where three figures with identical appearance and the same name can work together without thinking and fuse into one larger version.

It's also incredibly alienating to us, the viewer, to see a character we know as an individual -- and one with a big personality no less -- as simply one of a set.  It's not even immediately clear which one is the Ruby, and such a question is impossible to the gem point of view.  Using the value contemporary American society places on individuality, the opening minutes of "The Answer" (after the cozy frame narrative with Steven and Garnet) alienate us from conventional ways of conceiving ourselves before going on to reaffirm these ways through a fairly conventional romantic storyline.

There's a dystopian element to the rigid society of the gems, even if Garnet treats it as matter-of-fact backstory.  In writing about dystopias it's easy to lapse into a libertarian worldview that pits society against the figure of the individual.  Steven Universe, however, frames resistance as not an individual act but an interpersonal one.  It is Ruby and Sapphire's feelings for each other that motivate them to defy the gems' caste system.  Garnet herself is a symbol of the dialectic nature of rebellion in Steven Universe, transcending not only high and low in gem society but the opposing figures of individual and collective that dominate contemporary discourse from children's shows to political debates.

One of the things which is so disruptive and disgusting to Homeworld gems about the permanent fusion of Ruby and Sapphire is that they are two different types of gems.  This is a neat inversion of heteronormativity, where the union between similar entities (homo) are seen as natural and those between different ones (hetero) unnatural and antisocial.  Fusion is not always a metaphor for sex, but in this story it definitely has those connotations.

Ironically, the aspect of Ruby and Sapphire's relationship that is queer to human eyes -- that both members have female forms -- is entirely different from, and in fact antithetical to the aspects that make it queer to gem eyes.  The point, then, is not simply to defy the normative but to recognize that what is normative is changes over time and is conditional on society.  Think of it as kids' Foucault.

This is, ultimately, an important message.  The challenge of queer politics is to recognize and accept the different without homogenizing it -- in other words, to accept those with different lifestyles and orientations without doing so because you believe that they are just like you.  Such a perspective is not the same thing as resistance, but it does make resistance possible.  And so while it would be a stretch to call Steven Universe revolutionary, in its casual acceptance of everything from alternate family structures to queer relationships to literally alien perspectives, it does present a potential unusual for any genre, let alone children's fantasy.