Marthavision

I am a veteran Martha Stewart watcher. Back in the pre-prison days, I would obsessively watch Martha’s cooking show on The Food Network. I loved it for two reasons: (1) the information was great–in her matronly way she taught me about Silpat, how to arrange a cheese platter, the way to make a perfect omelet; and (2) the show bristled with under-the-surface tension between Martha and her guests. The highlight would always be when her mother was on. “Mother,” she would say (and how perfect was it that she addressed her mother as “mother”), “I think you’re stirring that too rapidly.” Martha was campy perfection.

Then, as you may well remember, Martha went to prison.

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Let’s bring in a Morgan Freeman voice over to set the transition:

“The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

All the time in the world… is that what allowed Martha Stewart to reinvent herself? For the Martha Stewart of the Food Network as desribed above is no longer in existence. She is now the cheery, friendly, salt-of-the-earth host of “Martha!” during the day and the stern but lovable CEO on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”

Let’s start with the first.

I need to disclose something here. What I am about to disclose has no bearing on my objectivity, it’s just a neat fact. My mom doesn’t like me telling you where I live, so let’s just say I live on X street. And when I go to Whole Foods I walk down X street to 7th Ave. Well on a walk to Whole Foods a few weeks ago I made a huge realization. It was promped by a giant turquoise and orange banner draped across a building right where I was standing. The banner said: “Martha!” The building was, I soon learned, Martha’s studio. Martha tapes her show ON MY BLOCK!

Over the shock yet? No? Take a deep breath. Ok. Let’s talk about “Martha.”

I’ve seen just a few episodes of “Martha.” I watched her make polenta with some Italian lady, I saw her interview Russell Simmons, and today I watched her cook with our foodblogging godmother Julie Powell of “The Julie/Julia Project.” In all three cases, Martha was virtually unrecognizable. Where was her mincing perfectionism? Ok, perhaps it shone through a bit when properly pronouncing the recipes (in French) from Julia Child’s cookbook, but only after Julie Powell did the same. But with Russell Simmons, the conversation was just eerie. They talked about leadership and Martha’s “inspirational” book. They decided that passion, in whatever form, is what leads to greatness.

I actually agree with that last sentiment but I don’t watch Marthavision for sentimentality—I watch it the way someone watches a volcano. When’s that lava gonna pop? Or has prison cooled her volcano to the core? [Please, no sexual innuendo. Let’s not talk of Martha’s volcano or her core.]

You’d think things would get juicier on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”

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And there are certain nuggets of laughability that make TA:MS slightly Martherrific. Like tonight on the salad dressing episode when, on her video message to the contestants she said: “This lettuce is from my very own garden here in Connecticut.” Martha’s entitlement and the pride she has in her possessions is certainly mocakble. But where’s the rage? Where’s the fire? Where’s the passion she and Russell Simmons were jamming about?

You’d think it would all spill out in the board room, but not so. Martha’s so contained it’s scary. Sure, she does things like switch the teams around or call in the players she thinks are really deserving of dismissal. But here it’s all about manufactured drama. You can virtually hear the producers whispering in her ear: “Do this… choose this one…”

Tonight’s episode was so agitating. This guy Jim is the most irritating person in the history of reality television. He so needed to be voted off it’s not even funny. He sold salad dressing by telling women “it’s good for bunions” and great “to massage your husband.” At one moment, I thought I saw him slap a teammate on the ass. He’s totally obnoxious and yet Martha didn’t fire him. She fired the cute Asian team leader because she couldn’t control Jim. “When you’re in charge,” she instructed, “you’ve got to be the boss. You can’t be bossed around.”

Then she wrote her signature farewell letter (which, as the weeks go on, gets shorter and shorter) to the “fired” contestant and the show was over. When a commercial came on immediately after for the Wishbone salad dressing created on the show (“Romemary Lime Vinaigrette”), I rolled my eyes and turned the TV off.

Martha Stewart became an icon because she was truly passionate about what she did: she wanted everyone to have the “best in class,” not just any spaghetti and meatballs but the best spaghetti and meatballs possible. And that passion, that zeal, made her unusual–she really cared about the things that for most people seemed arbitrary. In that way, she was a lot like her predecessor, Julia Child, who wanted to bring a deeper sense of living to middle class America.

In her quest for the largest reach possible, Martha had to be a very savvy business woman. And it’s that savviness that allowed her to build her billion dollar empire, to make herself a brand name with her visage on buckets of paint at K-Mart. It’s also what led her to jail. But beneath that savvy businesswoman was always a jubilant, curious, creative mind with a real thirst for knowledge and a genuine desire to share that knowledge with the world. It seems that prison has dulled that side of her persona. Maybe prison makes it so the perfect spaghetti and meatballs does, in fact, seem a bit arbitrary.

But then again. On today’s show with Julie Powell, Julie was making Boeuf Bourguignon. After the beef was browned and the pan deglazed with wine and stock, Julie added tomato paste and then some thyme.

“Is that fresh thyme?” asked Martha.

“No,” said Julie. “It’s dried.”

There was a silence. And in that silence, I believe, the old Martha–the one I know and love–blistered through. Come on, Old Martha, don’t be shy. We like your crass perfectionism. Tell Julie that fresh thyme’s the only way. C’mon, Old Martha, we really really miss you. Please, for the sake of the children: bring it on.

22 comments

  1. You simply MUST get yourself in the studio audience (or as a guest, maybe?) and report back. Perhaps the “old” Martha peeks through during station breaks. I’ve noticed she gets a touch panicky if she can’t find what she’s looking for right away. But she still enunciates in her arch, perfectionist way. NOBODY utters the word “po-ta-to” like Martha.

  2. I certainly think you should be a guest. After all, you are on PC Magazine’s Top 101 Websites. Martha needs to support the next generation of foodies.

  3. I think the episode with “Diddy” was the best, Martha actually rapped. She also said something like “I like listening to rap music as long as it is coming from another car.”

  4. I am so confused. I turned on Martha last night so I could see Julie but the beginning of the show made me think she wasn’t going to be on. They said Al Roker and then all these stupid Halloween things, nothing about Julie. Was that the same show?

  5. When the new “Martha” show was being announced this summer it seemed like it would be a duplicate of her former show “Living” but with all the bloopers left in (burning her hand, a soufflĂ© going bust). Was I ever surprised when “Martha” premiered this fall. I have mixed feelings.

  6. Bravo, Adam. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Was just talking to a friend about this last night. What we all loved about Martha was how much better than the rest of us she was…no fun watching her try to be one of the little people.

  7. Adam – Here is your chance to be on Martha. This is from her website:

    Best Bakers in America

    Are you or someone you know the best baker in America? If so, Martha is looking for nominations. Please send a short, creative VHS or Mini DV, no more than 3 minutes in length, showing us why. NO PROFESSIONALS please.

    (Are you considered a professional now?).

    Here is the link…

    http://www.marthastewart.com/page.jhtml?type=learn-cat&id=cat20039&categorytype=best_bakers

  8. Yes Jennifer, it was the same show–they just kept referring to it her as “an author who made a special tribute to Julia Child” since nobody would know what they were talking about if they said “Julie Powell.”

  9. Adam, this is a GREAT post. I love it when you “deconstruct” something like this.

    I share your fascination with Martha, and I love your “waiting for the volcano” observation. Almost by accident I caught her forst show and my response was awe and admiration: “She knocked it out of the park!” I really don’t think a person can fake her seemingly softened, light hearted attitude. I thought to myself that she MUST have gotten the very best image consultants available and really worked (successfully) to get across a whole new persona. Either that or she had a spiritual awakening in prison! I think if she did have an awakening, it was in the outpouring of affection and letters she must have received from her legions of fans. Clearly she feels somewhat personally smug or vindicated.

    But I also noticed, on her show, that despite her chirpy friendliness to her guests…she did not LISTEN. She asked her guest a question and then interupted their answer! This happened over and over again, causing a kind of helpless confusion in the guest after a while. It was almost like they became a PROP to Martha. So I think Martha is still who she is….but way smoother and willing to listen to the image consultants as long as it gets her what she wants–back on top of the Food Chain. :)

    Go see her show…but I almost want to say: Be careful! She takes no prisoners.

    Andrea

  10. For me, the real annoying thing about last night’s episode was that last sunday, my local grocery store already had a HUGE display case of Wishbone’s limited “apprentice” edition rosmary-lime dressing.

  11. Excellent post. There are some excellent points. I thought I was the only one who noticed that the letters got shorter and shorter.

    You should definitely try to see a taping of her show.

    I wasn’t ever a huge Martha fan because I lived near her and some of the drama that arose from that was really lame.

  12. “Let’s not talk of Martha’s volcano or her core.”

    Best. Admonition. Ever.

    I also miss the old Martha, AG, the lantern-jawed taskmistress in a big denim shirt, striding across her manicured lawn or caramelizing desserts with a blowtorch, bringing guests and minions to heel with that throaty, menacing voice. I loved watching her with her mom (also named Martha!), who always came off like a saint compared to her obsessive offspring. I think once this first season shakes itself out, she’ll return to her old ways, she obviously has no patience at all for mere mortals.

    Speaking of which, did you catch Cybil Shepherd playing Martha in “Martha Behind Bars”? What a howler! It’s on Lifetime still, look for it, you won’t be sorry — the prison origami scene is priceless.

  13. The new show just isn’t MARTHA! I think she giggles too much. It’s just like every other talk show except the guests happen to be cooking while they’re trying to get a word in about their new album or movie.

    I miss the perfectionism.

  14. So, just WHAT did she say about that thyme, AG? We don’t get Martha in our neck of the woods, so I will never know, unless you TELL me.

  15. So true, I miss the old Martha, although I still enjoy her immensely. I would like to think that, although she may listen to image consultants or whatnot, she still does as she pleases. Bring on the condescension! Make us want to be perfect!

  16. I couldn’t agree more. Adam, while I love your blog and have been reading it avidly for ages now (what, in internet time ages can be six months!) this is my favorite post by and far. I miss Martha the catty lady. My Halloween costume as Martha is just going to miss the mark now that she is trying so darn hard to be a good person. Albeit, a very fake nice person.

  17. aaaarrrgggh! can NOTHING ever be right?

    now marthastewartliving = marthastewartfamilycircle.

    YUK.

    adam, great, great, writing … it’s a (really) good thing.

  18. I think the reason that they are keeping that obnoxious character Jim Bozzini on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” is because he is good television. Trump and Mark Burnett did the same thing with that Omerossa person. These are the people that we all love to hate and will tune in every week just to see what they will say or do next to piss off the other members of the team and when they will get the axe. He’s a ratings bonanza for an otherwise dull (IMHO) program.

    Prison has definitely mellowed Martha quite a bit. At least that is how it looks to me. But if you notice when the guest cook is whipping up their concoction Martha watches them like a hawk ready to pounce. She is very quick to point out a missing ingredient or an error in the method of preparation. The old Martha is simmering just below the surface.

    One of the things that I don’t like about her new daytime program is that it seems very rushed. This is especially true during the cooking segments. There are pots and pans being juggled around, ingredients being tossed about, and things flying in and out of the oven so fast that one can hardly keep up. I think that they are trying to pack too much into an hour show. Slow down Martha and cut out some of the fluff.

  19. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it looked like Jim swatted one of the other contestants on the way out the door. They really didn’t make an issue out of it on the show so maybe he didn’t actually connect.

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