Top Chef Canada — a satisfying dish

As far as “off the island” shows go, Top Chef — and its local variant, Top Chef Canada, now in its second season on Canada’s Food Network — is difficult to appreciate properly. It’s based on a concept that must be judged rather than simply viewed, unlike, say, Top Shot, where the one closest to the target is clearly the winner. Many such programs invite the viewer to judge right alongside the experts; did you like the dress as much as the judges of Project Runway? Do you think A is a better singer than B, or is C a better dancer than D? Everyone has an opinion, and part of the fun is agreeing or disagreeing with the results. But with food, you’re completely dependent on the judges because you just cannot taste for yourself. If the judge says the dish is too salty, well, you either play along or you don’t.  You have to trust that the judge’s resume is good enough to produce a worthy judge, and also that the contest isn’t rigged to produce a result that isn’t based on skill and talent.

And that is why I’ve given up on America’s Next Top Model, as I’ve said elsewhere, because the young woman who wins the contest is usually the one who sucks up to Tyra Banks the most thoroughly. But I am delighted to say that that is not how it goes down on Top Chef Canada.

I’ve just finished viewing the latest episode, entitled “Restaurant Wars”.  I’ve been liking Top Chef Canada because I like the underlying concept — now, I absolutely love it. Because it’s honest; the person who deserves to go home goes home.

You see, when Russell Hantz demonstrated on national television (Survivor) that he was a sneaky little bastard, it exemplified an idea dear to the hearts of reality TV producers. If you’re a nasty unlikeable competitor, they want you to hang around, because you’re good for ratings. People tune in hoping to see you lose. So in many cases the producers bend things as much as possible to ensure that you do hang around; this is really only possible when the underlying concept is that judges make decisions based on their personal preferences. Russell Hantz benefited only from Jeff Probst making some not-very-subtle nudges in his direction at Tribal Council, raising suspicions in one direction or another. But various design-oriented programs have kept argumentative bitches around long past their sell-by date, and it’s pretty clear how and why.

Top Chef Canada is populated with Canadian contestants, of course, which is to say that by and large they’re a group of friendly, polite and humble folks. But there was one bitch among them, a young sous-chef named Elizabeth Rivasplata who was pushy, arrogant and very unlikeable. (Attention, Art Gallery of Ontario; I’m never eating in your restaurant while she’s working there.) Of course I didn’t taste her food, but her interaction with her fellow competitors was enough to make me think that she deserved to leave, because you can’t be a top chef if you can’t get the respect of your fellow kitchen workers. Yes, competitors are in the game to win, but you also have to share the kitchen with others; if you hog the ovens, it’s like pushing your way to the front of a line — very un-Canadian.

And of course after her first out-and-out quarrel with a fellow competitor, I thought regretfully that she had now cemented her place in the final five, regardless of the quality of her work, because she would draw ratings. It seemed as though she would have won a vote for “least favourite” among her fellow competitors; probably why, when the episode of “Restaurant Wars” came along, she was named a team leader (in the hope that she would shoot herself in the foot).

Indeed, she fired a number of shots in her own direction and struck home every time. She failed to keep to the “Canadiana” theme of her menu and chose to show off by preparing octopus. She quarrelled and whined. She couldn’t keep the orders straight and failed to pass along crucial information about who had ordered what and how many at which table. Finally, one of my favourite competitors simply took over and ran the kitchen.

Her team lost. And in the post-mortem, she claimed to the judges things weren’t arranged the way they had been.  (A tip, honey — if you’re going to do that, be sure you’re not on camera at the moment you take responsibility for something.) It looked very much as if she was going to get away with it.

God bless the judges, they sent her home.

And of course, on the way out, she demonstrated that she just didn’t get it. “It’s all their fault, I was right, they were out to get me, they’re mean, nobody loves me, it’s not fair,” yada yada yada. In fact, she presented a portrait of someone who had completely failed to understand why she had lost the competition. They liked your octopus, Elizabeth — it’s your ability to run a kitchen that was in question, and you just didn’t measure up. Plus, you’re a big ol’ bitch.

This was incredibly satisfying to me because I had resigned myself to hating her for weeks to come. Instead, I gained a great deal of respect for the judges, not that I didn’t have it already. I mean, yeah, okay, the program is replete with product placement — you might say riddled with it. The chief judge is a chef named Mark McEwen and all the contestants do their food shopping at his personal grocery store named, oddly enough, “McEwen”. And the financial prize is supplied by a brand of paper towels, a shot or two of which shows up prominently in every episode. But that’s the way that goes in this business, I assume. What this episode demonstrated to me is that they’re not just tasting the food, they’re assessing the personalities and character of the individuals whom they’re testing. And Ms. Rivasplata came up well short of requirements for someone who would be representing their brand, so they put her on her bike and sent her home. And this was regardless of the demands for viewership that I’m sure such a format imposes. I’m pretty sure there was at least one producer who wanted to keep her just because she was so unlikeable, but sanity prevailed.

So I’ll be continuing to watch every week, happy as a clam in a delicate white wine sauce on a bed of wild rice, a deconstructed play on a satisfied customer. And since I think I can now completely trust the editing, I’m going to put my money on Jimmy Stewart from Whistler, B.C., to take home the prize.

Update (April 30, 2012): Jimmy Stewart got the boot last night. And I am happy to say that I didn’t feel it was absolutely foreshadowed by the edit, either. I guess I’ll just wait to see who wins.  There’s still a competitor left from my home town…

Survivor — has the shark been jumped?

ImageI have to admit, I’ve been watching Survivor since — strangely enough — season 2.  Yes, I was aware of the huge interest in season 1, I just pushed out my lower lip and refused to participate in it.  But I was over at some friends’ place one night and they were all excited because season 2 was about to begin, and I begrudgingly sat through S02E01.  And I have not missed an episode since.  And, of course, I went back and watched season 1.  

There have been good seasons and bad seasons, of course.  It got bad around season 4, if my memory is correct, when Vecepia won — and then I think Brian, the minor-part soft-core porn actor and generally not nice person picked up the million in the next season.  Vecepia was an example of the Survivor meme that goes “Well, I can’t stand to give the million to anyone ELSE, so she’ll do.”  Brian — I still have no idea why Brian won.  Possibly everyone else was dehydrated and protein-deprived.  They used to really starve those people back in the early seasons.  

It got more interesting, for me, when the series went to China in season 15.  Todd Herzog, a 22-year old gay Mormon flight attendant, played the smartest game in a decade and well deserved his win.  James, the enormously muscular black gravedigger, played the stupidest game EVER and went home with two immunity idols that he had believed he didn’t need to use, even though they were about to become useless.  Duh.  

Todd’s strategy wasn’t made much of at the time; as I recall, he only mentioned it once for about a minute in the course of an episode.  He allied himself with someone stronger, someone nicer and someone less likeable/stupider to form a core group of four.  Then he manoeuvered to guide a group of four into the endgame (not necessarily the same core group, as I recall — I believe he threw James under the bus).  The point is that Todd was well known to be a long-time fan of Survivor who had watched every episode and learned from them, and he had evolved his strategy before starting the game.  (He talks extensively about it at http://www.realitytvworld.com/news/exclusive-survivor-china-champion-todd-herzog-talks-strategy-6280.php.)  I thought this was interesting because he developed a self-aware strategy that involved assessing the strategy of everyone else who had ever played the game, and figuring out a pattern that worked.  I have to add that, like all such strategies, it only worked for his season because, naturally enough, future competitors had seen his season and were prepared to deal with his strategy, so a new one had to evolve.  If you’re curious, I think of the next strategic wave as the “Russell Hantz” strategy, where Russell, a truly horrible human being who is my personal choice for “most deserves to be eaten by ravenous zombies”, flat-out bullied and intimidated his way through the game and paved the way for people with him to be voted the winner in the endgame.  And, of course, we’re past that now too.  I think the next theme was the “Jesus is my homeboy” trophe spontaneously evolved by Russell’s nephew Brandon, a vulgar and nasty-minded simpleton —  Jesus apparently wasn’t his homeboy, since Brandon was deservedly ejected. But it was an interesting if useless strategy that failed to work for both Brandon and Coach (another vulgar egotistical simpleton) and handed a million dollars to the brooding and unlikeable Sophie, apparently on the same principle that won it for Vecepia many years previously — default.  

And now season 24, the oxymoronically named “One world”.  Indeed, it’s one world only if that means “Throw everyone overboard and leave the high ground to me”.  The producers apparently decided that the Russell trophe deserved another go-round, so they cast a vicious and pudgy little cretin named Colton Cumbie.  Colton is sufficiently unaware of anything except his enormous ego to reveal in public that he’s a gay Republican, which flies in the face of logic, an awareness of history, and any possibility of a future career, and is in every way one of the most unpleasant people who has ever appeared on television, including presidential candidates.  He is nasty-mouthed, scheming, irrational, vituperative and above all stupid.  His premature departure from the game for medical reasons only left me wishing that people had more than a single appendix, so that he could experience the associated agonies more than once.  I’m sure he’s recovering on a sofa somewhere firmly believing that he could indeed have won the game, rather than being given the boot like his mentor Russell, and I’m equally sure that Jeff Probst and his team are already planning on bringing him back into a future season.  Unless someone shoots him first.  

Season 24 isn’t over yet, but I’m already bored — and that’s something that’s never happened before.  Certainly there have been seasons, like Brian Heidik’s, when I disliked everyone who had a chance at winning.  And there are a couple of people in this season’s mix whom I dislike, certainly.  Alicia, for instance, hasn’t yet realized that being a nasty-mouthed bitch only works when you’re the sidekick to an even bigger bitch (the late and unlamented Colton), and I’m hoping a tree falls on her in an upcoming episode.  Greg “Tarzan” has an ego the size of a small European country and has completely failed to realize just how much everyone, including millions of people in the audience, dislikes him for it.  (Oh, and Tarzan — shouting “Cheater” at people during competitions is not part of your job description.  If Probst feels someone’s cheating, he’ll do something appropriate about it. You don’t get to make that call.)  I’d rather do my own surgery than go to that nitwit, thanks.  

But for the most part — I can’t even remember the names between episodes.  During episodes, even.  And that’s just not something I can remember ever happening before.  There’s nothing happening to distinguish between individual contestants.  Rather than having competent strategies based on previous seasons, as the intelligent competitors in previous seasons have done, the main strategy here seems to be “Keep your head down and hope nobody notices you.”  Which is why my money is on Kim to win, because she’s playing this strategy best so far. For crying out loud, there’s even two middle-aged oafs who think they are entitled to be called “Tarzan”, even though there are two guys in the game so beautifully built that they make these two look like Cheetah.  What possessed the casting people to let that happen? This season’s cast is “the usual suspects”.

In my opinion, this season is a write-off, and pretty much was from the beginning. I have to blame the casting here. Certainly the execrable Colton was an “interesting” character, but we didn’t need another proto-Russell (and if we did, I’m sure that the trailer he comes from contains a few more half-witted personality-free Jesus-freak nephews ready to step up to the plate).  The Russell Hantz strategy is dead, dead, dead, not that it ever worked for anyone anyway. There’s not even an interesting fundamentalist Christian for me to mock. And, most crucially, there is no one who has half the strategic abilities of Todd Herzog.  As my friend and fellow aficionado Neil remarked, “You need someone that it’s fun to hate.  But you also need someone to like.” And there is no one in this season whom I’d invite to dinner as anything more than a curiosity, because they have failed to demonstrate that they have any understanding of how the game works.  Kim is nice, and smart, but she’s no Parvati Shallow.  

Will Survivor get any better?  Hard to say, but I am starting to think that it’s about time to cancel it.  After 24 iterations, one would suspect that it’s lost any forward momentum. Todd was the last player who had a strategy that actually worked to bring him a well-deserved win, and in the subsequent 9 seasons we had strategies that could be described as merely being less despised than one’s fellow competitors.  I suspect it will depend on whether the producers can find anyone who wants to bring something new to the table, something that we haven’t seen in a while.  It isn’t vulgar bitchiness and it isn’t Jesus — it’s brains, which are in short supply on American reality television.  Until we get that, it’s just going to be like driving past a car accident over and over again.  

Here’s some free advice for Jeff Probst.  Go back to what worked in the first place.  Make it cruel, make it hard, make them starve — quit bringing in coolers full of 7-Up for some extra cash from product placement.  Part of the interest of season 2, for instance, was the incredible hardships under which these people laboured in the Australian outback, and there were certainly no competitions to win an afternoon where one stuffed oneself with ice cream.  Find people with interesting personalities who are likeable and intelligent — and for heaven’s sake, avoid casting cretinous villains merely to stir the pot.  No more stunts — no more Redemption Island, no more fake merges, and possibly even no more hidden immunity idols.  No more “themes”.  No more bimbos and himbos; eye candy is nice, but there’s plenty of it on TV and this is a game.  See if you can find 12 or 16 people who have a roughly equivalent chance of winning and let them battle it out without luxuries or visits from home or by deforming the original concept into a series of product placement opportunities.  Because right now, you’ve bored me.  And if you’ve bored me, you’ve definitely bored millions of people — I can put up with just about anything in the name of Survivor, and I’m finding it easier and easier to miss an episode.  So wake up and smell the cancellation, Probst.