Fox and the theater of cruelty

Hells_kitchen The new reality program on Fox, Hell’s Kitchen (Tuesday, 9:00, Eastern seaboard) may be the most violent and abusive a piece of programming ever to appear on TV.  Contestants vie for top prize as the executive chef of a new restaurant and for their trouble Chef Ramsay heaps upon them any and every act of verbal diminishment he can think of.  This is a full-on assault on the ego.   It is so vicious as to make Simon Cowell, the present bad boy of brutal, hasty judgment, look like a choir boy.  Chef Ramsay is as nasty as possible as often as possible.

Reality programming was not happily received, but it had certain virtues.  It found a way to change the "noise to signal" ratio of TV programming, a way to build in a new order of disorder.  It was fresh programming, even when it wasn’t especially intelligent, imaginative or creative programming. 

The experiment continues to explore new territory.  It is forming and eventually it will overform.  By 2011, we will look back on our present efforts and go "Oh, right, reality programming, I remember that." Reality programming is arcing through the life cycle in any case, this is to say, but its maturity and eventual decline must surely be hastened by the sheer cruelty of this program. 

I have seen shows from previous seasons and it looks as if this fourth season has two changes.  Contestants are chosen for their vulnerability, professional and emotional.  And Chef Ramsay has amped up the vitriol with which he proceeds.  The combination is terrifying. Some of these kids are marked for the complete destruction of the social self.  And if swearing, snearing, scorning, and sarcasm doesn’t get the job done, Chef Ramsay is not above throwing up in a bucket to express his displeasure.  Previous season’s left us wondering where any particular episode might end up.  This formula is as predictable as it is unpleasant.

There are always evolutionary developments of just this kind.  Every experiment invites, especially when it is feeling like the thing that is running out of steam, to amp things up, to max things out.  But this takes the genre over the precipice on which it has always teetered, straight into a theater of cruelty that must not just offend but also sicken the viewer.   I can’t help wondering if this is a show invented by people who don’t quite grasp American culture. 

Hell’s Kitchen will find it’s audience.  There are probably a couple of million people who are so emotionally damaged that this will feel like good fun.  There may be another half mil who will watch in horrified fascination.  But the rest of us will refuse this experiment even as we begin to second guess the genre from which it springs. 

Good work, Fox Television.   

6 thoughts on “Fox and the theater of cruelty

  1. Jared

    I haven’t seen the recent seasons of Hell’s Kitchen, but the first two seasons were good television. One of the essential problems of reality tv is that the shows are often about amateurs competing at professional activities; Project Runway was the first show to feature professionals (albeit junior) in competition. Hell’s Kitchen directly addresses this problem: amateurs and underskilled professionals are taken to task as they would be if dropped into a starred kitchen in the real world.

    Ramsey’s behaviour is not unrealistic of a chef, a lot of them really do act that way to their staff. The culinary industry is more like the army than any other service industry.

  2. piersy

    I’ve been (admittedly hopefully) predicting the imminent decline of reality TV every year for the last 4, and sadly have yet to be proved right.

    Hells Kitchen 3, Big Brother 11 *sobs*. Sadly it’s cheap and continues to get the ratings, Leona Lewis has even broken the States meaning Cowell will be pushing that money spinning vehicle until it stops …err.. spinning money I guess.

    2011 probably still somewhat optimistic (I sense, deep down inside you feel like I do, and yeah I’ve had my guilty pleasure out of it on occasion too) ho hum *sighs*

  3. LK

    i only watched the show last night because of this blog post; otherwise i would have flipped past. i laughed out loud at various points, and i’m not an easy laugh. it was so ridiculous as to only be comparable to, as tom pointed out, wrestling. in the barthesian sense…it is spectacle, it is excess, it is grandiloquence, everything is so obviously done for performative reasons. this is not a sport or a competition, this is all for show. even the contestants themselves were laughing. and the division of the teams into men vs women made it even more perfect in that pedestrian way. i can’t think of another reality show that divides along gender lines. this one is such a parody of itself that i can’t imagine what SNL’s darrell hammond (who most resembles chef ramsay) would even do with it.

  4. Jim

    I was watching American Idol tuesday night – not exactly reality TV I know – and it is interesting to see how hard they are working to go beyond today’s reality for the contestants. Perhaps 25% of the show was on the stories of each contestant, where they have been; versus the reality of life as an AI contestant.

  5. Matt

    I couldn’t agree more with your observations. I’m reminded of a candidate from a previous season — a kid named “Dewberry” whose chubby face and placid demeanor marked him immediately as the doomed prey of Hunter Ramsey. Really, the show is like one of those straight-to-video nature programs where the audience watches a lion tear into the flesh of a sick, hobbled animal who has been separated from the pack.

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