Apologies for the delay, folks. Blame Pavle over at FnB. Alcohol just makes me sleepy these days (you can enable me anytime, Pavle).
So season seven draws to a close, and while most folks, myself included, seemed to be pleased with a strong finish, you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who didn't think this was one of the less compelling seasons. And most people found it disappointing enough that I think it might be troubling for the series, if not for a certain late-season development that we'll get to in a minute.
The question, of course, is what went wrong? The challenges certainly seem to have survived Lee Anne's departure (though she's still dearly missed) and Eric Ripert did a fine job as the new substitute judge. So where's the issue? Top Chef has always walked a fine line between a hardcore competition and a reality series with everything that entails. To oversimplify, you have the food and you have the personalities, and while some value one above the other (I'm more concerned with the former, though I don't deny the importance of the latter), I suspect we can all agree that the show's at its best when you have both.
The problem with season seven was that for a long stretch, it seemed to have neither.
We've seen that people can get excited when the food is great and the personalities are a little flat and/or focused (season six). And we've seen that when the food is lacking, if there are people competing who we truly enjoy watching, we can forgive food that's a little less compelling (season five). Though in the latter situation, I stress the word "enjoy." There's clearly an audience for shows featuring despicable individuals acting terribly towards each other, but you won't find many of them here, and while the elves just can't help themselves sometimes, I think Top Chef is best when it refuses to get down in the gutter with many other reality shows.
Season seven, however, just came off as flat in both departments. On the personalities end, there were certainly some curious folks. Can we all agree that love him or hate him, Angelo possessed enough weird for all four finalists? I'm not sure there was a lack of quirkiness. I'm more inclined to think it was a matter of a lack of people to root for. And I don't know that there's a formula, per se. There was just kind of an intangible sense that this season's cast wasn't compelling, at least from a reality show standpoint. And I suspect this is simply the nature of the business when you're in reality show casting. You pick a bunch of personalities, throw them in a room together and hope something watchable comes out. Sometimes what comes out is less than you thought you put in.
But you guys know me, and the personalities are a distant second consideration next to the main event, which is the food. Though it may be an unpopular sentiment, and you can never say with any degree of certainty if you're not sitting at the table tasting, let me first say that I don't think the quality of food was lacking this season. Certainly not in the back half of the season. But even in the front half, when I look back at what was produced, browse old recipes, look at the leaders and eventual winners, I can think of multiple other seasons that -- on a dish by dish basis -- I found less compelling than season seven. And Tom came right out and said that Kevin's finale menu was the best finale menu he's had to date. Even if you believe he's prone to hyperbole (may very well be the case), I don't see him making that statement if it wasn't at least one of the better ones. The problem, I think, was that the food didn't come across as well as it could or should have, and I think there were two contributing factors that I hope the elves consider going forward.
The first, I think, is a casting issue. Modern American cuisine is such a hodgepodge of flavors, techniques and influences that it's difficult to define, as it is with any big tent. It also means that while the differences between the chefs who practice it might be fairly evident when the plate's on the table in front of you, it means that drawing the lines between them is a little more difficult on camera. In essence, much of this season's food looked the same. There wasn't much in the way of ethnic specialists. There weren't any flashy MG chefs. There wasn't the contemporary yet vaguely foreign feel of a Stefan, or the technically sound homey feel of a Carla, or the San Francisco clean of a Jamie, or the rustic yet deceptively sophisticated pork-centricity of a Kevin Gillespie, or the clean simplicity of an Antonia, or the clumsy-looking but awesome-tasting of a Dave... you get the point. Angelo aside, the season seven contestants were very difficult to pigeonhole, which isn't a bad thing in the restaurant world, but I think it's a liability on Top Chef, and I think this season demonstrated why. It's easier to follow the contestants and get excited about them when there are clear lines to be drawn between their styles.
This was exacerbated, however, by what I consider the larger issue, which is one of editing. We have all come to expect deception from the editors on Top Chef. And not just in small ways. Of course, they want to sharpen personalities for dramatic purposes -- make the lovable contestants more lovable, make the jerks bigger jerks, make the comedians funnier -- that's part of the reality show game, it's to be expected and other than the places where it seems like they're manufacturing controversy out of whole cloth, I can't get that bent out of shape about it because that isn't where my primary interest in the show lies anyway (and in their defense, in the reunion episode Tiffany made it pretty clear that peagate wasn't completely an invention of the producers, even if they played it up). But this season, it seemed like the task of trying to fight through the editing to see the food was unusually difficult. I'm trying to decide whether this is a trend, an exception, or rose-colored glasses. But my gut feeling was that this season, it was harder than ever to trust the way the food was presented. It's as though the editors are so concerned with preserving suspense in that last minute of the show that they're doing whatever they can to obscure the nature of the food. And this is really, really bothersome. If we aren't given an accurate idea of what's on the plate, with the accompanying judges' comments both good and bad, then the food is no longer a part of the show. It becomes the MacGuffin, a nondescript, meaningless element that exists solely to drive the plot. We've always relied on the blogs for context and detail in the wake of the episodes, but I worry that it's increasingly becoming a matter of "Okay, we just watched the show. Now let's go read the blogs to hear what *REALLY* happened." And that's that kind of thing that, for me, completely destroys the show.
Hey, Elves... if you're reading, it's okay to have somebody run away with it sometimes. Hearing the judges' opinions -- their real opinions -- provides far, far more enjoyment than a little bit of suspense in minute 59. You have articulate, interesting judges and you've mostly done a good job of assembling interesting chefs. Trust that the competition is interesting enough on its own and that you don't have to play sneaky editing games to make it so, and I think the result will be a stronger show. Please. Because it's getting really tiresome, even for (obsessively) dedicated fans of the show.
Thankfully, the Elves rounded out the season by pulling a rabbit out of their hats. Just when the calls that Top Chef had jumped the shark were starting to reach a crescendo, they announce (after a leak) that next season will be an all-stars season, featuring favorites and finalists from the previous seven. I'm sure somebody will find something to be annoyed about, but really, if you can't get excited about this, you never should have been watching the show in the first place. Plus, the addition of Bourdain as a regular judge is a major, major coup. Here's hoping this won't be a one-season stint. The only thing I'm dreading? The preseason rankings. Talk about an impossible task.
So until then, we'll consider this post the signoff until either season eight of Top Chef, or another season of Masters, whichever comes first. While I appreciate the enthusiastic e-mails, I just don't have it in me -- time or energy -- to post about another TC spinoff, particularly one that covers the part of the menu I personally find the least interesting (pure preference, no value judgment), and includes some reportedly... um... oversized personalities. Sounds like a recipe for a weekly desire to claw out my eyeballs, even if I had the time. And this blog has always simply been about what interests me, and I don't want that to change. So I'm going to pass on Just Desserts and focus on my regular content for a while. But I'll leave this post open for any TC discussion you like, and I'll try to get some sort of prominent link right on the front page of the blog for easy access before it gets too buried.
And with that, I'll sign off. Thanks again to everybody who comes here to read and discuss and participate. I love that the folks who comment here are interested in the food, and try for the most part to stay above the usual mudslinging. It certainly makes the show a whole lot more enjoyable for me, even though it feels like I can't spend as much time responding directly to comments as I did a few years ago. Please don't read it as a lack of desire -- purely a lack of time. And as usual, there's an actual blog here about plenty of things non-TC, and while readership numbers aren't something that drive me (my ad revenue isn't based on-- hey, wait... I have no ad revenue!), food discussion surely does, and I love hearing all of your thoughts on things unrelated to Top Chef as well. To you folks, it's business as usual, minus Top Chef.
To those solely interested in Top Chef, though, thanks for hanging out, I hope you enjoyed the posts and the discussion, and I hope you'll check back in when the next season is dated.