Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fall 2007: The Reality Shows
"Kayfabe" (pronounced exactly how it looks) is a term in pro wrestling that denotes the silence surrounding the fakeness of it all. When wrestlers insist that everything is real, they are using kayfabe, but the moment they admit that yeah, it's staged and the fights are scripted, they are breaking kayfabe. A few years ago, the WWF (now WWE) had to admit that the show was not a sport, but entertainment, and now it's well known that the fights are scripted, that the writers are just as important as the fighters, and despite the fact these men really DO go through hell in the ring and undergo some serious injuries, the soap opera surrounding the actual fights is all staged for the audience's immense enjoyment.

Well, it seems like reality shows have gone the way of pro wrestling, because where before they at least tried to make it look real, now they've given up and have decided to let us watch it to pick out everything that was made up, exaggerated, edited, or scripted for our pleasure.

America's Next Top Model: Cycle 9
The new season of ANTM started last night, and let me preface this by saying I still love and adore this show. Tyra is an egomaniac, and god I love her for it. It's why Canada's Next Top Model didn't work for me -- Jay is a sweetheart, and he's just far too sweet and not making every moment of the show about him. Tyra is unabashed in her me-ness, and that's what makes the show so much fun.

The first episode followed the same old routines of all the premieres -- Miss J shows up and mumbles something that makes absolutely no sense before sashaying the 33 potentials into their waiting area (though the Caribbean cruise was totally new... is it me or does the thought of a cruise send anyone else into shivers? You couldn't pay me enough to go on one of those things; I'd feel trapped on a giant glitzy trash yacht for the entire week... :::shudder:::) Then the auditions begin and some model tells her very tragic story of a bad upbringing, and the music goes from fun and silly to serious, like during those pretentious wankathons that happen throughout the PGA Masters tournament where the announcer talks of the "majestic rolling greens" and "beautiful foliage" while the music swells and we get closeups of orchids (yes, my husband's a golf addict and every April I'm subjected to this tournament). Tyra becomes pushy, "Oh, you were molested by an uncle and thrown out onto the street and forced to eat garbage? Please tell us EVERYTHING about that..." Because... why? Because it'll somehow help their chances of making it to the top 13? While I found Mila rather annoying, they edited her scene so she comes in right after the girl who's bounced from foster home to foster home and encountered all sorts of tragedy in her life, and then you've got happy little Mila practically singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on the table and talking about the sheer awesomeness of life. I could just picture the little Disney cartoon animals superimposed around her as she danced through the fields. There was nothing wrong with her saying she'd had a happy life, but when put right after the other woman, it made her come off as trite, naive, and stupid.

But the most obvious gimmick of this season was Heather. In she came, with all the grace of a Clydesdale, with the posture of an 80-year-old woman suffering from osteoporosis and her head bobbing around and her feet unsure of where to go. She wasn't particularly beautiful or model-like, and she didn't stand out in the audition. But then (cue the soft piano music, violins, and closeups of orchids), she announces she has Asperger's. Now, here's where I'm hoping someone can post a comment and help me out here, because I will not profess to know a lot about Asperger's. Most of what I know I got from the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about a boy who is a high-functioning victim of Asperger's disease. By high-functioning the author means he can go to a regular school, but has to take special classes. He sees the world around him as black and white. He's obsessive about what colour of food he'll eat. He doesn't have any emotion and rarely shows any feelings other than fear in the book (and even then, he doesn't seem to understand that situations are fearful, so rarely shows fear). I don't know how accurate a depiction this is of Asperger's, but Heather didn't seem to be like that. She looked the panel in the eye, she laughed at the jokes, she fit in with the other girls. I would have thought she'd be in the corner, unwilling to eat the food, confused because her daily routine had been interrupted, and unsure of how to interact with the girls. I did a quick check online and it said one of the symptoms of Asperger's is clumsiness, and she definitely had that. It says people who have the condition become obsessed with tiny details, and usually details of details (so if she's obsessed with clothes, for example, she might only be obsessed about buttons on clothes and how buttons are all different). They find it very difficult to interact. They revert to childlike behaviour in times of worry.

Does Heather really have Asperger's? I would think the show would come under severe scrutiny and criticism -- especially among parents of children with the condition -- if she didn't, but it also seems to me that she made it to the final 13 only because she has this condition. The preview for next week showed her sitting alone in a chair holding a stuffed monkey, so either she really has it and the show is going to exploit it, or she's acting. Either way, it's sad. If anyone knows more about Asperger's and could weigh in on the comments board (who actually saw the episode), I would really appreciate it.

Of the ones who have made it through, I like Janet (I always like the ones with the short cute hair), Saleisha, and Chantal. But that'll change by next week, I'm sure. (Did anyone notice one of them was named Spontaniouse? O...kay.)

Kitchen Nightmares
Where the American version of Top Model is still the best of all the international versions, the same cannot be said for Gordon Ramsay's new show on Fox, Kitchen Nightmares. As I've mentioned several times in this blog, the BBC show Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is top-notch. The Gordon Ramsay character (for that is what it is) that has been created for Hell's Kitchen is not the real Gordon Ramsay. Sure, he peppers every sentence with the f-word and is a hothead, and believes that food is important and you need to respect your chefs, but he cares. And that caring side of him only comes out in the final two or three episodes of Hell's Kitchen. On the BBC reality series, Ramsay visits restaurants that are about to go under, and teaches them how to read their local audience (often taking them out into the town with their food so the locals can try it), how to pare down their menus from 75 items to 15 to avoid craziness in the kitchen, how to improve staffing, how to cook simpler fare, and how to make this restaurant work within their means. So when I heard that Fox was going to do their version, my first instinct was, "Oh god, don't ruin this."

If you watched last night's sideshow masquerading as the BBC series, and hadn't actually seen the BBC series, you might have thought that it really was as good as the British version. Gordon is definitely toned down, not screaming defiantly at people. He's trying to listen, and trying to help. But the way Fox handled it -- and what they chose to focus on -- took this subtle show that taught me a great deal about the horror of the restaurant business, and what these people have to go through to stay afloat, and turned it into a circus. First, the place was called Peter's Italian Restaurant. After Peter, the only son of Yogi, the Italian papa whose family runs the place. Peter is a dick (he's the big guy pictured second from the left) with a violent temper, no work ethic, and who believes he's some sort of privileged boy whose sister should do all the work while he sits at a table all night snapping his fingers for another espresso. The ovens don't work, the food is rotten, the sister's about to have a breakdown, the chef is a hothead (who looks remarkably like Don Francks' character in La Femme Nikita), and no one has any respect for the brother. While the restaurant is bleeding money, Petey is pulling money out of the till each night to pay for his tanning sessions, gold watches, sports cars, pedicures, and teeth whitening ($1000 a visit, he boasts).

What Fox has done with this story is taken the emphasis off the actual food industry, and put it onto a character. A stereotypical character of the egotistical Italian-American male. On the British version, there are usually numerous reasons why the restaurant ain't workin', but here, it's Peter. And only Peter. Peter won't kick out money for new stoves because his teeth are more important to him. Peter gives out free meals to his customers that he knows (which are most of them), takes money out of the till, and serves himself drinks all night. The food is late to the tables because when the plates are up in the back, Peter goes into the back and steals them to eat them himself, forcing the chef to cook another one. There are bill collectors hounding them, and instead of being a proper businessman Peter goes all Tony Soprano and threatens to break their f**kin' kneecaps.

And then there's the editing. It opens with most of the highlights of the show you're about to see, and every time we go to a commercial those highlights are repeated again and again. By the time Peter actually goes out into the middle of the street screaming and swearing at a "bill collector" (read: paid actor whom Fox planted to walk in at that very moment and told Peter to act accordingly), we've already seen the scene played out five times and it's not surprising at all.

And then there's that DAMN VOICEOVER from Hell's Kitchen. Ramsay tries the food, checks out the place, and decides to sit down with the family to find out what their take on it is. Voiceover: "Now that Ramsay has had a chance to look over the flaws in Peter's Italian Restaurant, it's time to sit down with the family and take stock of why THEY think it's going downhill." Really? Is that what he's doing? Well, thank you for summarizing the last five minutes of the show for me, dear voiceover, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to keep up. And that MUSIC. In the BBC version, there is no music. It's silent. When Gordon looks at the chef and asks him point blank why he couldn't cook his way out of a paper bag, and the young chef looks at the ground and begins shuffling back and forth, the camera simply holds the scene, silently, no music, and we're feeling as awkward as the chef. Not so here... there are crazy cuts, wild music, and that stupid Hell's Kitchen string section that drove me nuts on that show.

The show is full of inconsistencies: At the beginning of each day they flash "DAY FOUR" to let us know where things are at (the BBC version assumes we can keep up and count to 4, and they don't remind us of what day we're on) and Peter is wearing a black shirt. Ramsay takes him into the kitchen and they argue over something and suddenly in one cut, Peter's wearing the white shirt from day 2. The entire show jumps around like that, like the editors were on crack.

But all of these criticisms pale in comparison to my two biggest problems with this version. First of all, the family is in dire need of new appliances in the kitchen. In the BBC version, he'd sit down with their budget and explain how a new stove now would give them a lot of money later on, and they budget it out and the show stops just short of showing us how they get a loan for it. But in the Fox version? These stupid people who make stupid decisions and couldn't run a restaurant if they tried suddenly walk in one morning and Ramsay's all, "Surprise!!!" and takes them into the back to show them their new $40,000 kitchen. It's like Extreme Makeover: Restrint Edition. I was SO disappointed. The BBC version shows us the realities of running a restaurant, and what sacrifices you'll have to make if you want it to work. The Fox version pretends there's a lottery ticket around every corner, and gives them the easy way out.

And my second -- and biggest -- criticism of the show is it ends on day 7. Peter has been a loser for 20 years, and suddenly on day 6 Ramsay gives him this giant speech about how HE is the problem (the scene is worth the entire show, just to watch the chef's face all agape throughout it) and Peter looks all offended, but by day 7 is all, "Yeah, he's right, I'm a total dick. I will now change." And poof... he's changed. The service goes splendidly, he's totally helpful, he doesn't complain or snap his fingers to get his espressos, etc. and all seems well. AND THEN THE SHOW ENDS. You might be wondering why I would criticize that, except the BEST part of the BBC version is that it ALWAYS looks like it's going well on day 7, and then Ramsay shows up unexpectedly 6 weeks later, and often that overnight catharsis that the owner had had at the end of the seventh day is long gone, he's pissing away their money again, the chef has quit in disgust, the restaurant is boarded up, the locals have torched it, or whatever. Other times he comes back and they're still implementing Gordon's ideas and have turned the restaurant into a blazing success. But it's the return visit that is the true test of Gordon's ideas and whether or not the restaurant will succeed.

Will I watch it again? Of course I will... I watched Hell's Kitchen right to the end even though I wanted to put a fork in my eye for a lot of it, because I'm intrigued by Ramsay. And maybe Fox will get a lot of criticism from TV writers who've seen the BBC version and know they're massacring it, and will actually do the return visit. And at the end of the day, it's still better than a lot of reality shows. But I'm truly disappointed. The BBC version usually only lasts six episodes and then I have to wait over a year between seasons, and I thought this would be the perfect filler. But it's not. It's broken kayfabe, and declared that all of these shows are scripted and contrived, whereas even if the BBC one were, it's doing a damn good job of hiding it.


The Chapati Kid said...

America's Next Top Model? It should be called America's Next Top-Rated Freakshow. How they can exploit people's personal issues in the name of fashion is beyond me. How people can allow themselves to be exploited like that is even worse. I can just see the casting committee going, "Oh, Hey! She's got a disorder. That's sexy! Better than psoriasis. Let's use it."

Kristin said...

You are definitely wrong about Asperger's. I knew a women with 2 children (boy & a girl) with this diagnosis. It was sort of like they were about 2 years behind everyone else socially and had ADHD to boot.

The daughter was in my child's class. She could participate, she would talk to people, but she preferred her own company. She just didn't know quite how to interact with kids her own age on their level. It also took a lot to get her to sit still and concentrate on projects for any length of time. She would lose interest quickly.

So, I could definitely believe this girl has Asperger's. You do get better as you get older, because you pick up on how to socialize with people. It just takes you a heck of a lot longer to catch on.

As for Kitchen Nightmares, I agree with everything you said. I wish I could write to the network and tell them where they went wrong. The only thing I can think of is that Gordon Ramsay agreed to do the show only if he didn't have to spend the time doing the voiceover. Because that would take extra time on his part. And so they were stuck with a narrator.

Not following up was the WORST mistake. Because that is the best part of the show. Also, they didn't give you as much detail about the financial picture. On the British version, they will candidly discuss money losses, salaries, etc. I would have liked to have known how much Peter was taking for a 'salary.'

I hope they fix it, but I am assuming the format we see, is the format that stays. Bollocks!

Crissy Calhoun said...

I've sadly never seen the Brit. ver. of Kitchen Nightmares but everyone was telling me how great it was. And of course the Fox version blew. SOOO annoying. It's like watching Nanny 911. It had nothing to do with running a restaurant. Just people behaving badly. Grrrrr. I wish Ramsey had enough pull to make the show as good as the Brit ver.

And surprisingly, I have no ANTM commentary cause I totes missed the first ep. I have failed Tyra (and myself).

Andrey said...

Yeah Asperger's is often described as a mild form of Autism. People generally have trouble picking up on social cues that seem innate to the rest of us. For example, when you're in an elevator you make more of an effort to look away from other people than you would in a normal setting because you're in such close proximity. You don't necessarily have to think about it, you just do it automatically. Someone with Asperger's might not have picked up on this themselves and perhaps would come across as that creepy person who stares in elevators. Many people with Asperger's learn these social skills as they get older by being told and then having to actively remember them. This is one reason why social situations are often avoided by people with Asperger's as the pressure to try and remember all the complex social rules most of us have never consciously thought about can be overwhelming. Heather totally reads as having Asperger's.