We ask the same thing of a TV show that we ask of a restaurant: consistency. I want the burgers at Shake Shack to be just as good every time I eat there; I want Steve Carell to be just as jerky every time I watch “The Office.” Tonight’s episode of Top Chef disrupted what was, for me, an excellent start to a new season. They’d gotten rid of the walking monotone that is Billy Joel’s wife and replaced her with the charming and beautiful Padma Lakshmi. The contenders are more equally matched than they were last year (no more health food nuts and Rachel Ray wannabes). But tonight’s episode revealed a flaw that is fatal to any competition, particularly one that is stretched out over several months: an embarrassing flip-floppiness with the rules.
We can safely say that there’d be no Top Chef if there weren’t a Project Runway. The success of Project Runway is based largely on the seriousness with which everyone involved takes the competition: the contestants, the judges, Tim Gunn. On the season finale this year, when Laura accused Jeffrey of getting help with his final collection, everyone took it very seriously. And we took it seriously when Tim Gunn informed the other contestants the next day that the producers had done a very thorough investigation and that Jeffrey hadn’t had any illegal help. Jeffrey broke down crying because he took it so seriously.
Tonight on “Top Chef” Sam, a highly ambitious New York chef (voted one of New York’s sexiest chefs by some New York rag) was under the gun in the low calorie challenge. The contestants had to cook a three course meal for kids at a weight-loss camp with the requirement that the entire meal total no more than 500 calories. We learn that one cup of olive oil has 1500 calories so making this food tasty, let alone edible, will be difficult. The teams were scrutinized by nutritionists as they assembled their recipes: the recipes that they decide upon the first day must be the recipes they carry out the next day.
The next day Betty’s team–which includes Frank and her arch nemesis Marcel–wins because of Frank’s crowd-pleasing pizza. Two teams are declared the worst: Sam’s and Mia’s–one made overcooked turkey meatballs, the other made bland coleslaw. And it’s there at the judges table when Sam is under fire that he says that members of the winning team may have cheated. When the judges press him, he says no more. “I’m not that guy,” he says. (This clearly annoys Tom Collichio who writes on his blog: “Still, the whole thing left me annoyed. I dislike the passive-aggressive tendency on the part of some chefs to keep mum about possible violations….I believe in addressing things head on — both for your own sake and for the overall health of the working environment.”)
Mia steps up and says Betty cheated. When the nutritionist was there Betty used Splenda for her “crispy cookies” (meringues), the next day–when she was supposed to stick to her original recipe–she used sugar. Colicchio confronts Betty about this and Betty admits that she did change the recipe but that she didn’t understand the rules: she thought it was about keeping it under 500 calories, not sticking to the recipe. Collichio scoffs and says none of the other chefs were confused about the rules. Even on his blog he writes, “I find this suspect, since she knew we had no nutritionists on day two to OK the changes.”
Here’s where the problem lies. On the first episode they cornered Otto for taking lychees from a grocery store without paying for them. It was an honest mistake–he didn’t steal them, he just didn’t notice they weren’t paid for until they were at the car. They took him to task in the judges room and when Otto offers himself up for dismissal they accept. He didn’t break a specific rule, he just made a mistake and he’s off.
Here Betty absolutely violates a rule of the game and she’s let off the hook. Collichio declares that no one will be sent home this week. His justification is complete and utter bullshit–he actually doesn’t have a real justification. The truth is that the producers like Betty. She makes for good TV. She’s vibrant and at odds with Marcel. She’s one of the few who’s emerged so far as a “character.” Keeping her on the show ensures drama and conflict; sending her home would diffuse an explosive atmosphere. And so Tom says “no one goes home this week” and I cry “crap!” Even on his blog his reasoning is shoddy: “But without video to prove cheating — and given that the White Team had won the challenge — the judges weren’t prepared to send anyone from that team home.” Why do you need a video when she confessed that she cheated? The rule was don’t change your recipe and she changed her recipe. [And you know that if it had been someone less interesting than Betty they would totally have shipped them home. Diana, my roommate, who works in reality TV confirms this: “You know something’s up on a show like this when nobody gets sent home. You know the producers are involved somehow.”]
So I now feel about “Top Chef” the way I feel about a restaurant that dazzles the first time you try it but flops the next. I’m dubious but I’ll keep going back because of the good stuff it still offers. I just hope the integrity of the judges isn’t continually compromised by the production-mindedness of the producers. Imagine that: a call for integrity in reality TV! Bravo, however, is the network to deliver. It did with “Project Runway,” let’s hope it can with the second season of “Top Chef.”
[HEY! Check out Pim’s post on the same topic. I love the line about preferring the Satanic Verses to Uptown Girl.]
[HEY#2! I enjoy this Chow.com audio interview with Tom Collichio. He says the producers play a very small part in the decision making process. Hmmmm…]