Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Restaurant Stakeout. Bar Rescue. Restaurant: Impossible. Odds are you’ve seen at least one of those shows. I’ve watched them all, and I still do, to an extent. It’s good television. If somehow you’ve managed to never see one of these shows, the premise is that a business owner (either bar or restaurant, depending on the show) is on the verge of losing everything, and is reduced to calling in an expert for help. The “expert” comes in, yells at everyone, makes an absurd amount of changes in a needlessly short amount of time and finally everything works out in the end. The business reports higher sales and staves off bankruptcy. Like I said, it can be compelling television, because everyone loves a predictable story arc. Last night I watched a new show on the Food Network called On the Rocks (get it!?), featuring yet another British “expert” telling business owners how stupid they are. I think, with this final straw laid upon the camel’s back, we should all agree to let the genre die.
At least in my young mind, this entire genre was made possible by Simon Cowell during his American Idol stint. That is, I can’t recall a time before that when someone actually criticized people on national television before an audience of millions. Whether or not Cowell actually pioneered it, he definitely created the template: Have an accent, be an expert, and deliver (sometimes unnecessarily) brutal criticism under the guise of “wanting to help.” That character was confined to competition-type shows for a while, but it didn’t take long to figure out that people love watching other, normal people get belittled on television. Now, we have angry men yelling at restaurant owners. We have reached our saturation point.
My problem isn’t really that I doubt the expertise of the stars of these shows. Everyone knows that Gordon Ramsay is both a talented chef and successful restauranteur. I don’t doubt that John Taffer hasn’t owned and operated a bunch of profitable bars. I don’t know much about Robert Irvine, but he’s the most irritating of the bunch. Instead, my problem is that making good television and actually helping a business are two diametrically opposed goals, no matt how hard you try to mesh them. I used to work as a consultant, and I can assure you that at no point were we allowed to call our clients or their staff “fucking idiots,” even if the work was pro bono, as it is in the case of these shows. Producers have to create story arcs complete with underdogs, heroes, and antagonists, none of which are necessary (or, you know, beneficial) for improving a business’ bottom line.
To see what I mean, watch an episode of the BBC version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. He goes in, spends most of his time in the kitchen (he’s a chef by trade after all), helps the owner on the business end, and uses his fame to help with the marketing. There are no heroes or villains, just a kind of boring “behind the scenes” type look at how a restaurant ticks. Note that he does all of this relatively quietly. The US version, on the other hand, is a circus. He yells and curses at the top of his lungs. There’s dramatic music. Instead of just going in and offering simple advice, he completely tears down the restaurant, its menu, and the employees. Bar Rescue does it. Restaurant: Impossible does it. Everything is re-built in a manner of days, as though three days and a facelift is enough to change the fundamental issues that plagued management in the first place (it’s not, if you search around online you’ll see that nearly every place that’s been “saved” has ended up closing anyway). The result is a program that’s, while certainly entertaining, exhausting. Exhausting to watch. Exhausting to invest in, especially in 2013 when you can pull up a bar on Yelp!, see that it already closed, and know that the episode you’re watching was for naught.
Once the “reality” aspect of the show is dead, is there really any point to them anymore? They’re all the same, and as producers fine-tune what does and does not get ratings, they’ll only become more scripted and less realistic. More than anything, they’ve become avenues for the “experts” to promote their personal brands. I love Bar Rescue, but I’m tired of hearing John Taffer have the audacity to blame a bar’s failure on menu design, the secrets to which, of course, only he knows. Restaurant: Impossible has nice pacing, but enough with Robert Irvine using it as a platform for his “my cooking is better than your cooking; follow my instructions to the letter or you’ll fail” bullshit. These shows had their moment in the spotlight, but it’s time to let them die a dignified death (if Car Lot Rescue didn’t already ruin the chances of that).