Hell’s Television

If nothing else, reality TV is good for one thing – proving the theory of quantum physics that states that the very act of observation helps to determine what is being observed.

To make this statement even weirder, you need to know that I formed it by watching Gordon Ramsay cook on television.

Ladybug and I enjoy watching him.  And believe me, we understand the peculiarities of the genre.  It’s actually a pet peeve of mine, and sparked this little rant.

At best, a reality show is basically a documentary.  We see, as closely as possible, what’s happening, and we draw our conclusions.  This has the advantage of immediacy and emotional impact, and an inherent limitation: we only seeing the footage chosen for us, in a carefully-arranged order.  This leaves us open to manipulation, some of it very subtle.  That’s true of any visual presentation, but we tend to be more forgiving of the medium when we know going into it that the program is fiction.

If the manipulation is blatant and cynical, however, it can get infuriating.

Gordon Ramsay’s shows are a great example.  We’ve been Netflixing the original UK series, and the difference is stark.  The British Kitchen Nightmares is much better-edited than the US version, and precisely along the lines of the distinction above.  First, there’s little-or-no voiceover, unless it’s to fill in after a commercial break, or get you up-to-speed during a montage. Second, it’s Gordon doing his own narration, rather than someone who bitterly regrets not sounding like John Facenda or Don LaFontaine. Third, they don’t layer everything with post-production gimcrackie.  The music alone in the domestic version is so ridiculously melodramatic that I want to puke… forget the sound-effects, camera pans, cross-cutting out-of-order footage, etc.

The whole purpose of the UK show is to let you see the restaurant Gordon’s saving and what he does to help. The US version is to play up Moments: the conflict, drama, and triumph over great odds.  It has the effect of making both the restauranteur AND Chef Ramsay look like raving idiots.  That’s bad enough to me, but they commit a worse crime.  American producers plainly don’t trust their audiences to see what’s going on and think for themselves; they beat us around the face with music cues and close-ups and narration.  It just pisses me off.  I’ll figure out when the moments happen, thanks much.

The pro chefs in Hell’s Kitchen fare no better.  They always make it seem like they’re barely able to plate their food in time, they slot everyone (including Gordon) into roles by their editing – the Crazy Boss, the Backstabber, the Quiet One, Designated Underdog, the Ditz, All Buisness, etc – wife and I just look at each other and say stuff like, “Bitch Edit,” “Heading for a Fall Edit,” and “Miracle Comeback Setup.”  So transparent.

Perhaps it would be better to think of these types of shows as crafted fiction rather than “reality,” but that runs into another problem – they fail as fiction because they’re not true to their own internal workings.  Even slapstick comedy, farce, and escapist fantasy epics remain true to their own internal ethic.  They have to in order to succeed.  Instinctively, people get this, and even children quickly learn the difference between serious bad guys with guns and Elmer Fudd blasting Daffy Duck into a Picasso.  

Look, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to present something dramatically, or to use a little artifice and technique.  I’m saying that it has to serve the story instead of thinking that it is the whole story.  The idea of cooking is to end up enjoying a great meal, not to perfectly prepare something inedible just to show off the technique.  I’m saying that it is fundamentally dishonest to show only the Drama! Pathos! Triumph! and command us to respond in lockstep.  Straight fiction doesn’t work on those terms.  A storyteller is generally trying to say something genuine about human nature, family, society, morals; entertainment leavens the weighty dough and makes it rise; the execution adds the flavor to make it a true meal for the soul.  The savor in it will come naturally from the skill demonstrated – by treating the ingredients with care and the audience with respect.  And we all have our particular taste in these things… not everyone gets the same things out of a great work.  To require an audience to feel and think and enjoy all alike, would be like Chef Ramsay serving his scallops and insisting that everyone taste beef wellington.  You become a great chef by bringing out the true flavors of the food, and a great artist by bringing out the true life of the characters; trying to comandeer people’s tongues and noses works no better than comandeering their minds and hearts.

Between the challenges, services, and confessionals, they’ve got days worth of footage and we only see 44 minutes.  We get that, you know?  So why not show us an accurate representation?  Chef Ramsay can’t be hollering like that every moment.  Even the chefs we think of as barely able to boil water are probably doing all right a lot of the time.  We see the three glaring errors in a four-hour service and two confessionals with the folks involved.  And this is the real poke in the eye about the genre: the contestants themselves have been raised on twenty years of “reality” TV, so the confessionals are anything but.  These face-time sessions are all about projecting a particular image.  The contestants basically conspire with the producers to cast THEMSELVES into roles for the cameras.

Under the duress of the actual program activities, probably less so.  It takes a lot of time and mental processing to keep a persona correct all the time.  The more you concentrate on what you’re really doing, the less of you can be devoted to projecting that image.  It’s one reason I would love to see longer, uncut stretches of “routine” footage.  The producers think “nothing’s going on” and leave them out, but that’s precisely when you’ve got a better chance of catching folks off their guard.  Being more authentic, it thus becomes more interesting and makes for a stronger show.  We could understand the dynamics of the personalities better.  We could see for ourselves who’s trying to move forward vs. who’s trying to just shove other people backward.  Then when those Moments come, we get to see who’s wasting time trying to get their persona back into place, and we have a better idea of why Chef Ramsay reacts the way he does for some mistakes, and understand why certain chefs are eliminated straight off while others get chance after chance.  Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of loud stuff happening, someone wins, and The End; as if filming the auditions for a head chef’s job were the same as stringing together set pieces in an action movie.  Even fictional characters deserve better than that, so how much more the real people?

Maybe we should just call it Quantum Entertainment:  people on these shows act more authentically in inverse proportion to their awareness of the cameras.

So the producers betray a contempt for their audience, for their own talent, and in a way even for the art of storytelling itself.  Why then do I watch and enjoy, in spite of myself?  Doesn’t that make me a sucker and guarantee I’ll get more of the same?

Luckily for all of us, stories are often bigger than anyone involved in telling them.  They have a way of coming through despite the worst efforts of ham-fisted storytellers, careless actors, and inattentive audiences.  I watch for those times when the story breaks through and I connect with a genuine moment.  I’m waiting for the story that’s there to escape from its captors and make itself known.  What can I say, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

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3 thoughts on “Hell’s Television

  1. LeeAnn August 11, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    I love British television for the subtle moments, Bennie Hill notwithstanding.
    And I completely know most “reality” shows are edited in a most manipulative fashion. I don’t really think of them so much as reality as I do “random improvisation”, with the fingers of the producer and sponsor firmly in the pie.
    I take my fun wherever I can find it.

  2. Kate P August 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Well, you make a good point in that we are attracted to the narrative of reality TV. . . it’s just often sub-par narrative.

    There seems to be this secret-that-everybody-knows: We are being manipulated. (Comments at the Television Without Pity forum for “Project Runway” frequently reference the “Magical Elves” a.k.a. the producers as having their hands in something seemingly orchestrated.) Which can be fun sometimes. I like to yell, “Crocodile tears!” during the exit clips at the end of “Top Chef.”

  3. Laura August 15, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Most reality shows are edited so heavily you barely know what’s going on, unless you just sufferd a head injury- because yes, they are that blatantly staged.
    I do like Ramsay and his cussing, or I guess I should say “his bleeps.”

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