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.

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