more Top Chef

Just as the sitcom evolved to become gradually more effective as a TV form (replacing the once dominant variety show), so has “reality TV” gotten better and better at grabbing my attention. For example: old school Real World had a kind of meandering, non-sequitur flow — characters would just sit around and complain impromtu, even talking directly to the cameraman, about nothing. Later seasons’ casts were progressively crazier and better looking. Production values also went up, as did the incidence of product placement. Emotions ran higher, more drama and sex occurred, a more easy-to-swallow Real World form emerged.

A similar transformation can be observed even betwixt the first two seasons of Top Chef — the replacement of the befuddled, often droning Katie Lee Joel (spouse of Billy Joel) as hostess by the considerably hotter and more charismatic Padma Lakshmi (former spouse of Salman Rushdie) is the most substantive change in this regard. Other changes are more subtle: the judges conspicuously utter brand names more often, the contestants are forced dramatically to stand before the judges table rather than sit with them, and the judges no longer ask contestants to speculate, often at length, about who among them should go home.

I guess my point is that every show on TV has a very carefully elaborated formula — even so-called unscripted shows. Reality TV producers try to eliminate confusion and its accompanying discomfort; they use a very precise formula to hone their brand name show to perfection. You don’t want it to be so predictable that people don’t bother to watch, but at the same time you want people to be able to excitedly anticipate what they’re getting. This is because the core purpose of all television, or at least all television produced in the United States, is to sell advertising.

(Incidentally, Al Gore provides a frank examination of TV and the deterioration of politics here)


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8 Responses to “more Top Chef”

  1. Bob Says:

    Katie Lee Joel was told by the director to be cold and distant. That is not her real personality. When they hired Padma, they told her to be more ‘controversial’. That is not Katie’s fault. She did what they told her to do and then they decided that they made a mistake. She got screwed by the bastards at Bravo. She was never comfortable playing a ‘Heidi Klum’ role. If you don’t know what actually happens behind the scenes, you shouldn’t be so quick to judge people.

  2. tripinchina Says:

    Well yes, Bob, all I know about the show is what I’ve seen. I’m sure, indeed I assume that Katie Lee Joel is a lovely individual in real life. But there’s only one word that describes her comportment in front of the TV camera: Awkward.

    You can call me cruel, cold hearted, and quick-to-judge if you like but I just got finished watching 11 episodes of that season in more or less continuous succession– you *cannot* tell me that KLJ’s voice didn’t grind rather harshly on the ole eardrums when she said “Daaaaave, please pack your kniiives and go.” (or similar).

    Besides, what am I supposed to know about anyone other than what they show me?

  3. David Says:

    The link to the Al Gore article no longer works. Please fix it! I want to be able appropriately shoot down his idea that politics has EVER capable of deteriorating.

  4. David Says:

    Also Brian is completely insane. If you agree to have your likeness used on television, the agreement includes giving up the right to control how people interpret you. Oftentimes (and in Katie Lee’s case) you are paid for this inconvenience. I don’t watch Top Chef (that’s a whole other issue) but if I did I wouldn’t lose a second of sleep over judging Katie Lee Joel adversely. She can afford not to care.

  5. David Says:

    And by Brian I mean Bob.

  6. tripinchina Says:

    Good point!

    I’d perhaps take it even further and argue that you never really have the right (or ability) to control how people interpret you…

    The Al Gore link should be working now. The text is available here:

    Let me know what you think!

  7. David Says:

    I have two problems with that Al Gore speech. Conveniently, they call to mind two quotes that I rather like. The first is as follows:

    “Accept certain inalienable truths: prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.”

    That’s Baz Luhrmann, from that song he had on the radio in 1999 where he just spouted random advice. I didn’t really care for the song, but this line resonates with me. The big issue I take with Al Gore, or anyone who says that our society has been “dumbed down,” is that yes, you can certainly show me statistics that say our society is dumb. But compared to what? He gives precious few hard facts to support his thesis that the “marketplace of ideas” was ever anywhere close to the ideal imagined by our country’s founders. He has one throwaway line that talks about the easy availability of production for media back in those days, but never backs that up. Okay, I accept that Thomas Paine managed to get his famous pamphlet circulated pretty widely. Wasn’t he a rich white man with rich white man friends? Someone needs to prove to me that “anyone” had the means to participate in this so-called ”marketplace.” And speaking of which, he asserts that anyone could participate in the free flow of ideas, given the prerequisite of literacy. Well, given the fact that public education was a hugely controversial issue well into the 19th century, and blacks and women were second-class citizens until well into the 20th century, I’d say this is a pretty massive prerequisite for most of American history.

    Furthermore, he idealizes the newspaper as a medium, going so far as to imply that the printed word is the champion of meritocracy by presenting all sides fairly. I’m sorry, I refuse to believe that television invented the idea of a mindless medium devoid of ideas. Gore references Robert Byrd haranguing an empty senate hall that has lost its capacity to discern the truth; the first thing I thought of (though I wasn’t there at the time) was senator Abraham Lincoln, charging the Polk administration with misleading the public THROUGH THE NEWSPAPERS among other outlets into supporting a war with Mexico. What, exactly, has changed in the media since Lincoln unsuccessfully tried to reveal that Polk had blatantly lied about Mexican aggression? And of course there’s the more obvious example, the “yellow journalism” propagated by William Randolph Hearst, who may have single-handedly driven the US to war with Spain for his own interests. And this brings me to my next quote:

    “You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.”

    That’s Joseph Cotten, admonishing Orson Welles’s version of Hearst. And it’s another problem I have with anyone saying American society is politically “dumber” than it used to be. Who exactly is Gore blaming for this perceived deterioration? It’s not 100% clear who he thinks is responsible, but what is absolutely evident is that he is distancing himself from what he sees as the problem. Isn’t this the same guy who purposefully made himself bland, uninteresting and unoffensive in order to secure the vice-presidential nomination, and then in an effort to win the presidency rode the unoffensive label straight into the ground? It’s great that he’s found religion all of a sudden, but forgive me if I take his opinions on mediocrity in politics with a grain of salt.

  8. tripinchina Says:

    Yeah I am aware of/somewhat appreciate that Baz Luhrman thing…there was a kind of Calvin-Klein-commercial-esque music video for it on youtube that I had similarly lukewarm, not necessarily negative, feelings about. :-/

    Al Gore does get caught up in rhetoric about the nostalgic fantasy picture of “the way things were” — as you say, “the free market of ideas” thing is pretty much bullshit. Ironically, it was you who several years ago lent me your copy of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of The United States” which talks in great detail about how rich, white men dominated American society and indeed designed the American political system solely to serve their interests. Al Gore doesn’t tell you that. But he does call attention to the fact that television is the most powerful medium for propaganda that the world has ever known and (in the US) it is controlled solely by corporate interests. Because of this, says Al Gore, politicians have no choice but to rely on TV which is very expensive, hence they must accept contributions from rich companies, hence “democracy” suffers to a degree that has not occurred before.

    You’re right to argue that propaganda and ignorance and political corruption have always existed regardless of TV — but I say TV accelerates them. For example, journalistic integrity has quite visibly suffered in TV news since Fox News advanced its super-ad-volume-selling news formula that other networks were forced to adapt. Also, Americans watch more and more TV and statistics show that this is the only activity that actually precludes other activities i.e. if you watch TV regularly it is quite a bit less likely that you regularly play sports, go to church, read books or newspapers, etc. It has been a major player in the breakdown of community ties and insane growth of consumerism in American life.

    I guess calling Gore’s speech a “frank examination” was overkill. He’s got a Disney-fied story about American history and thus a pretty vague analysis of the problem. *But* he’s the only mainstream politician that I know of who consistently talks about this kind of shit! And I respect that a lot.

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