Top Chef is good, but it isn't genius, and last night's episode--which I'm dubbing "Smoked Pork Christmas"--proved why.
In a nutshell, the show needs to get over itself.
But I should clarify. First, let's begin with the premise that no Bravo reality competition is all that important. Entertaining? Yes. Addictive? Obviously. But really, it's just people sewing dresses or designing living rooms. Or making food.
The other series in this family embrace their campiness. Tim Gunn's very demeanor reminds us it's all kind of silly, and when Shear Genius asks contestants to make real people look like Marge Simpson, you realize the producers know the score.
Now, I'm not saying fashion design or hair styling are silly per se. I don't think that at all. But everything becomes ludicrous when it's the theme of a reality competition. Take obesity: It's a life-or-death problem, but when the folks on The Biggest Loser stand weeping on a giant scale, flanked by judges and ceremonial objects, their plight is encrusted by the ridiculous.
But no one on Top Chef acknowledges that. The show is so stone-faced you'd think entire nations were going to rise on fall based on the freshness of a scallop.
More to the point, Top Chef forces the same ridiculous crap down our throats as every other reality series, but it never lets anyone admit for even a moment how foolish and manipulated it is.
In "Smoked Pork Christmas," for instance, we see an early scene of Hosea talking to his sister on a personal communication device that I'm calling a Cohort. While Hosea asks her about their cancer-ridden father, we get a tight close-up not of his face, but of the product. It's such a baldly tasteless moment that I groaned when I saw it.
Yet the entire scene is played as though Hosea is the star. At least on Project Runway, you can hear the wink in Tim Gunn's voice when he mentions the Bluefly.com accessory wall. At least when we were learning about Korto's terrified flight from Africa, she wasn't sitting on an inflatable Target chair.
But as revolting as it can be, the product placement makes sense: The sponsors are footing the bill. However, Top Chef is just as humorless about things that don't even matter.
Like, does anyone believe the Christmas episode was filmed at Christmastime? We see shots of contestants walking around in shorts, for God's sake. Yet the producers dress the set with garland, bring in the Harlem Gospel Choir to sing a carol, and force everyone to wish each other happy holidays. It's just like the Thanksgiving episode, when everyone was cooking outside. In November. In Rochester. The night that show aired, I looked up the weather in Rochester, and it was below freezing. Yet as they were stirring up stuffing under the clear night sky, the chefs just swore they had that Thanksgiving feeling.
With a light touch, this faux-holiday spirit could be charming. If someone had pointed out that it's crazily awesome to see a gospel choir in kente cloth singing "12 Days of Christmas" in front of an industrial stove, then the show could have kept it's grip on reality.
Instead, we saw rapt reactions and people getting chills as some guy went melisma-crazy about a partridge in a pear tree.
By playing everything so straight, the show creates the impression that it has a lesson to teach. By showing contestants helping each other in the name of Christmas, Top Chef presents itself as a moral arbiter and not some goofy reality show on extended cable.
Even worse, the show suggests its audience is too stupid to realize what's going on. As though we're sitting there, jaws agape, waiting to be enlightened by Radhika's message of forgiveness.
To further insult us, "Smoked Pork Christmas" also has the guest judge act like she's spontaneously deciding to give the entire cast a copy of her book. She even says it's their reward them for helping each other through a difficult challenge.
And look: I don't begrudge anyone their efforts to move their product, and I doubt this woman believed she was doing a great act of charity by going on TV to plug her book. But by framing her as the Mother Teresa of recipes, the producers made the author and Top Chef itself nauseating.
Sanctimony also infects the judges. My favorite thing about this season of Top Design was the sassy interplay between India Hicks and Jonathan Adler. They actually had fun together, like when Michael, Nina, and Heidi cut up after someone sends a tacky disaster down the runway.
But over in the kitchen? It's doom and gloom and "I am very disappointed in you."
I'll grant immunity to Padma Lakshmi, because she seems so lovely and supportive, but where does Tom Colicchio get off? Why is he always so stern?
Of course, this could all be the magic of editing. Maybe it's yuks galore backstage and Tom Colicchio is the jolliest clown. But if that's the case, why frame the show this way? Why is it better for Top Chef to be so full of itself?
My boyfriend Andrew makes the interesting point that the series is the least gay of Bravo's Big Four. Fashion, hair styling, and interior design just naturally attract more homos, so maybe their respective series have a more inherent sense of camp. I mean, if the Harlem Gospel Choir shows up on Project Runway, you'd better believe that some queen is jumping in to sing along... possibly Tim Gunn.
So maybe Top Chef's sensibility is just too "straight." Maybe it needs an intrinsic queer element to loosen it up. And I say "intrinsic" because the "Team Rainbow" thing was obviously a manufactured sop to gay fans.
And whatever: Maybe you can't survive in a real restaurant if you're overly campy, but Top Chef isn't real. So pull out the glitter, Colicchio, and make me a cake with sparkles.