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.