Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction's truer to life than reality is. That's what TV producer Darren Star is hoping, anyway. Kitchen Confidential, his new show based on a memoir of the same name by Anthony Bourdain, is trying to pull off the stunt that Mark Burnett's The Restaurant attempted two years ago: sexing up the kitchen.
The Restaurant, as you may recall, was a reality show set in Rocco DiSpirito's eponymous restaurant that endeavoured to show the behind-the-scenes excitement of New York restaurant life. It was, unfortunately, one of those shows where the participants are painfully aware of the cameras in a bad college-improv-troupe kind of way. Staff attempted to counterbalance the drudgery of day-to-day restaurant operations with over-the-top personal drama: instead of creating a digestible narrative with a protagonist, rising action, a climax, supporting cast and a dénouement, the show ended up being nothing but a restaurant full of people loudly obsessed with the particulars of their own crises. Even the patrons showed up just to appear on camera-a fact made painfully obvious by the restaurant's swift and merciless tanking the moment the show wrapped.
Reality television, when it's done well, remembers that it shares more of its TV DNA with game shows than it does with documentaries.
Kitchen Confidential is different, though, and I have high hopes for it. Thanks to TV-nerd favourites Nicholas Brendan (whom you may know as Xander Harris), John Francis Daley (Sam Weir on Freaks and Geeks) and John Cho (the Harold half of Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), the program has a built-in audience of geeks and stoners-an important fan base to establish. Add in all the Food Network moms who think Bourdain's a dish, plus an air of mild controversy over the role of the Times food critic, and the program has a real shot at success. Even aside from the pedigree, though, Confidential has the potential to trounce The Restaurant because it's fundamentally more interesting-Star and his co-workers are going to be orchestrating the action of the show, thus making it come off more seamlessly than reality.
Reality television, when it's done well, remembers that it shares more of its TV DNA with game shows than it does with documentaries. Its trick is putting "actual" people in ridiculous, highly contrived situations and force them to compete with one another. The dramatic tension that fuels the show comes from wondering who will win; audiences need to know that the entertainment they are consuming will come to an exciting, rewarding end. This is achieved by creating a slow, tense build-up to a revelation at the end of each episode, and finally to the annunciation of the winner at the end of the series. This takes editors, writers (who, incidentally, are lobbying to make "real" writer wages), and lots of scrapped footage. Scripted fictional TV uses arcane devices like "plot" and "character development" to achieve a similar effect.
The problem with The Restaurant was that it simply took what its producers imagined to be an exciting situation, stuck some people in it and hoped for the best. This works for documentary filmmakers because they are usually attempting to capture a phenomenon, unmanipulated for outside observers-creating a statement of fact. Reality shows must create serial drama that builds to a release, and it's really hard to get a bunch of wannabe actors with wait-staff experience to do that. Where scripted shows can make you empathize with certain characters and draw larger lessons out of the metaphorical bits, reality TV just makes you want to root for someone.
Now, you don't expect Wheel of Fortune to examine the problem of class in America, nor do you expect Fear Factor to address the rising tide of eating disorders in teens-so why would anyone in their right mind watch a bunch of bitchy neo-cons to get tips on how to accept that black dude who's boinking one of their lily-white daughters?
Clearly, none of this is breaking news. Reality TV has been dissected by critics in every medium ad nauseam. What's really interesting is that network executives still don't seem to get it. Take the recent Welcome to the Neighborhood fiasco. In case you missed it, Welcome to the Neighborhood was going to be an ABC reality show (meant, puzzlingly, to expand on the "success" of Dancing with the Stars) wherein rich, white Texan suburbanites got to choose who moved into a vacant house on their block. Competing for the honour of living with these lovely people was a Guess Who's Coming to Your Block Party extravaganza: you had your Asian family, your Hispanic family, your black family, your gay couple with the adopted black kid, your pierced and tattooed goths, your trashy stripper mom and your Wiccans. The idea was that the poor people would dance and grovel while the Texans made wince-inducingly offensive asides into the camera. Shockingly, this did not go over well with numerous watchdog groups, including unlikely bedfellows GLAAD and the Family Research Council.
Even if you take away the illegality of discriminating against people based on race or religion for housing (a law ABC claims it didn't know about), it's hilarious that ABC execs were surprised that critics weren't touched by how much, in the end, the Republicans learned from their discarded would-be neighbours. Especially since, at least according to this account, what they learned was that goths can be Republicans too. Who knew that poor people were even allowed to vote?
The show was meant to illustrate how people can grow. Now, you don't expect Wheel of Fortune to examine the problem of class in America, nor do you expect Fear Factor to address the rising tide of eating disorders in teens-so why would anyone in their right mind watch a bunch of bitchy neo-cons to get tips on how to accept that black dude who's boinking one of their lily-white daughters? Yes, of course there are lots of people in North America who could use some exposure to diversity; it's just that I can't imagine why that exposure should come in the form of a house-getting contest. The law agrees.
ABC yanked the show before it aired, although not without some grousing about the need for open debate in this country. To me, the Welcome debacle illustrates exactly why a show like Kitchen Confidential should kick ass: network executives are tone-deaf idiots, occasionally saved only by good writers and excellent source material. So go on, Xander, Sam and Harold, and do us proud: without fictionalized TV trying to present an entertaining version of reality, we'd all be dancing with the stars.
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn't get what the big deal is about The OC. No offence.