Tag Archives: reality TV

Delusions of Culinary Grandeur

By Jason Menard

I’ve discovered that the greatest thing those TV cooking shows serve up are delusions of culinary grandeur in people like me. But for every cooking nightmare they spawn, they’ve also helped to foster a dream-like world of excitement, flavour, and exposure to a world of food influences.

I admit it. I’m a Food Network addict. I can while away countless minutes watching any manner of food presentation on television. From Giada De Laurentis to Anthony Bourdain, from the Iron Chef to the Surreal Gourmet, I’m hooked on the concept of food preparation – and now I’ve deluded myself into believing that I can emulate what I see on TV.

After all, it seems so effortless. The fact that these people have honed their craft through years of slogging through the culinary trenches doesn’t seem to register to the average viewer like me. If we view it, we can do it.

Maybe I’m hearkening back to my youth, when Martin Yan would exhort, “if Yan can do it, so can you!” Of course, back then I was content to let mom and dad handle the cooking duties, so that latent passion for cooking lay dormant for many years. Even in my university years, when long days working at the student newspaper meant take-out took precedent over home cooking my idea of cooking was to pour some salsa over a chicken breast. When I got married, my wife ruled the kitchen – although I was a willing assistant who had my own set of meals in the rotation.

In the end, necessity truly is the mother of invention. And its father is clearly access to information. A few years back, my wife and I were involved in an accident that has left her with severe pain issues. As such, I’ve gladly taken up the slack in the kitchen and the Food Network has fuelled my delusions of culinary grandeur.

A recent meal? Tandoori chicken with saffron-infused basmati rice. If the ends justify the means, then the meal was a success – but the process of preparing the meal certainly didn’t come off as smoothly as the Man-Made Food broadcast made it seem it would. And that’s often the case. Exotic ideas that celebrity chefs pull off with flair and élan often don’t have the same sense of romance when you try to transfer that experience from the television screen to the dining room table. Yet despite the challenge (and the mass clean-up that resulted), I know I’ll be back in the kitchen trying out something new.

But at least I’m not alone in this passion. It seems that our increasing access to culinary television has broadened our perspectives on food as a whole. Meals and presentations that were once the exclusive domain of high-end restaurants have been demystified and made accessible to the average family. Ingredients once considered exotic are now commonplace on the local grocery store’s shelves.

Best of all, people are no longer will to settle for the status quo. My generation has truly embraced the foods and influences of a broad spectrum of cultures and our palettes have been improved because of it. We grew up in a Canadian society that was becoming increasingly multi-cultural. As such, we were able to take the staples we grew up with and accent them with ethnic influences that we were comfortable seeing as they were the ones our friends were growing up with. For us, it wasn’t about experimenting with food – it was about embracing our peers’ cultures as we embraced them as friends.

And we’re seeing that change commercially as well. Where not all that long ago Italian and Chinese restaurants were considered ethnic, we’re now inundated with a delectable panorama of dining options ranging from Lebanese to Peruvian to Ethiopian to Indian. Our culinary passport is now only restricted by our own threshold for experimentation!

So as our cultural influences expand, we’re introduced to new influences in our food. And then when you combine the proliferation of food-based television designed to make cooking accessible to the masses, you have an equation that allows average guys like me to believe that cooking for my family can be an event, not just a chore.

In the end, not all experiments turn out well, and I’ve had my fair share of disappointments. That will happen when one’s aspirations exceed one’s talents. I know I’ll continue to grow in the kitchen. Already I’ve come leaps and bounds – moving from dry chicken with salsa to hand-made Chicken Kiev or Marsala dishes. But the great thing is that there will never be a point where we’ve done it all.

There’s always room to grow, there’s always room to learn. Too often we shovel our food down without appreciating it. We take for granted what we’re eating, when we should be savouring it. And if food television has taught me anything, it’s been that food should be an experience.

So I’ll continue to emulate what I see on TV. After all, the worst thing these delusions of culinary grandeur can bring is a failed cooking experiment. But the potential reward that comes from making food an experience is one that my family and I can enjoy for years to come.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Reality Bites

By Jason Menard

Feb. 21, 2006 — The perils of watching reality television include the simple fact that the more you watch, the more familiar it all becomes. And, when it comes to reality, one thing’s for sure – good things don’t come in threes.

Trying to get caught in the draft of the unexplicably popular American Idol (as proud of a Canadian as I am, I refuse to even refer to that Ben Mulroney-helmed disaster of a knock-off to which we’re subjected), two other shows have joined the fray: the “pick-some-words-out-of-a-hat-and-throw-them-on-a-page twins, Dancing with the Stars and Skating with Celebrities.

Both shows enjoy a sort of Surreal Life cachet of faded stars and B-list performers stepping out of their element and performing on a national stage. And, unlike the karaoke-quality wannabes that turn out for Idol, these dancers and skaters are able to instill a sense of conviviality with the viewers due to the fact that any of us can imagine ourselves in a similar fish-out-of-water scenario. Whereas the Idols are convinced they are the world’s gift to singing, Dancing and Skating’s participants appear to truly enjoy the experience, revel in the learning process, and grow.

Unfortunately, all good things don’t come in threes, and the inexplicable decision to replicate the judging tribunal on each show reveals either a lack of creativity or a calculated tweaking of the audience’s nerve endings in order to artificially stimulate a response.

All three shows employ archetypal judges that fit into three categories: the vapid, schmoopy, “I love everyone” soft-sell, female judge (Paula Abdul, the saccharine overloaded Dorothy Hamill, and Carrie Ann Inaba, best known for her stellar role as Fook You in Austin Powers: Goldmember, and her seeming dislike for anyone from the female race); the catch-phrase ridden, animated foil, middle-ground judge (the Aallllight Dawg-repeating Randy Jackson, the “what clever play on words did I think up this week to wedge into a performance review” Bruno Toniol, and the man who somehow mixes blandness with hyperbole, Mark Lund.

And, of course, there’s the third judge. Snarky, to-the-point, and British: the archetype, Simon Cowell, and his ex-pat brethren Len Goodman and John Nicks. These are the, albeit acerbic, voices of reason. They cut through the niceties and say what needs to be said – and, of course, a worthy competitor would take constructive criticism to heart and improve.

But that’s not the way these shows work. Taking a cue from our cultural over-sensitivity, the studio audience vociferously boos whenever a negative syllable is uttered. Apparently we’re not allowed to have people who are worse at something than another. To these fans, these shows should be nothing more than televised T-ball, where everyone gets a turn and no-one loses.

Or maybe it’s just another way to rub the British’s faces in the whole American revolution. You can have your cantankerous judge who speaks the truth, but they’ll assert their American dominance to thwart the judges’ nefarious cultural colonialism.

Want proof? Master P. Need more? Bruce Jenner. Again? How about any of the American Idol rejects who inexplicably outlive their usefulness at the expense of audibly more talented performers? And what’s the best way to ensure that these less-than-shining lights stay on the show? Make sure that the British judge either chastises the competitor or chides the audience for keeping them in the competition.

American voters hate being told what to do. Being told by a stuffy Englishman with an attitude? Horrific. I mean, the only thing I can think many Americans would find worse is being condescended to by a judge from France.

Alas, the joy in watching these shows doesn’t come from the idea that you’re going to see something groundbreaking. What people like is the familiarity. That’s why the rosters, for the most part, are riddled with known faces from our past, that’s why the songs used are non-offensive standards culled from history, and that’s why the sets and judging are all identically formatted. It’s electronic comfort programming at its best and its worst.

In the end, we want everyone to hug, everyone to be friends, and everyone to congratulate each other for just giving their all! And if it takes booing down a surly British judge, well then so be it.

Now, if only we could figure out how to export Ben Mulroney to one of these shows…

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Who Knew Watching Paint Dry Could Be Sexy?

By Jason Menard

“Hey, let’s throw it up on the wall and let’s see if this sticks!” It’s long seemed to be the mantra of the television executive but, increasingly, it appears that we’re buying whatever they’re selling. Mainly because no matter what the product is, the packaging is sexy, and sex sells on TV!

We’re now into the summer season, at time where re-runs once ruled the roost. But now, especially with the proliferation of reality television, no topic seems to be taboo – and ideas that would once be laughed out of the pitch room are now being embraced by TV execs and the viewing public alike.

There once was a day when Bob Vila was toiling away in relative obscurity on PBS and Wok With Yan was a guilt pleasure, enjoyed by a select few. But now, the digital channel revolution seems to have opened the spigot on this type of programming and a deluge of copycat shows are flooding various networks.

No matter where I turn, there’s another home renovation show, all with just a slightly different twist on the others. Let’s switch houses! Let’s rebuild a restaurant! Let’s let the kids re-do their rooms! Let’s show somebody organizing someone else’s house! Organizing someone else’s house? When did filing become must-see T.V. The adage “As exciting as watching paint dry,” used to have a negative connotation – but now we have entire networks dedicated to doing just that! And it’s not just the channels dedicated to this type of programming that are jumping on the stylishly redesigned bandwagon – even CNN is dabbling in business makeover programs!

Cooking shows have enjoyed a similar popularity surge. We’re now at the point where the term celebrity chef is no longer an oxymoron and some have even attained sex symbol status. And millions of us watch these shows – spending hours enjoying not just the finished result, whether it’s a home or a meal. But it’s not just the beauty of the room or the dish we’re appreciating – it’s the beauty of the host or hostess.

Case in point is the summer hit Dancing with the Stars. Essentially, it’s ballroom dancing (with a dash of other styles) being served up to the mass market. But we’re watching it – I’m watching it! And why? What’s making it succeed? Sex.

As a society, we like watching beautiful people. It’s what we do. It’s why our magazine racks are filled with countless gossip magazines and it’s why there are a million and one interchangeable Entertainment Tonight-esque shows on TV. It’s also why I’m watchingDancing with the Stars. I’ll be honest, I’m not the world’s biggest dance fan. And, although I find myself mildly entertained by this show (and channeling an inner critic I didn’t know I had – as if my two left feet could do any better), the fact is that I – and many of my brethren – am watching this show for prurient interests. Hello Kelly Monaco, I’m talking to you.

The TV executives know we’re slaves to our libido. It’s why the masses know who Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson are, but other women – who actually have some sort of talent that doesn’t extend to wearing a halter top – toil in relative obscurity. We live in a time where a beautiful woman can sell millions of records without actually being able to hit a note – paging Ms. Lopez – and when ballroom dancing can be a success as long as you put a few beautiful people in skimpy dance costumes.

It works for both genders. Ty Pennington, who’s biggest talent appears to be the ability to annoy, is a bona-fide sex symbol, know more for his abs than his proficiency with a hammer. No matter how much lip service we pay to the idea that it’s what’s inside that counts, when push comes to shove we want good-looking entertainment.

Sex sells. Embracing that idea is how we know reality and specialty TV is maturing. Check out the rosters of shows like Survivor and the Amazing Race – they’re inordinately skewed towards the buff and beautiful, aspiring actors and models. The majority of the stars of cooking, design, and makeover shows are not just easy-going, they’re easy on the eyes. That’s because TV execs realize that we want a filtered reality. We don’t want to see everyday people in extraordinary situations – we still want reality wrapped up in a pretty package. And that’s why we’ll watch ballroom dancing if there’s a hot guy or girl doing it!

So, to all you aspiring actors and actresses out there, no matter what idea you have for a TV show, pitch it. Because, more and more, it doesn’t matter if the idea’s good – it’s only important that you look good doing it.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Reality Check

By Jason Menard

Reality TV turned five years old this week, and while it’s still experiencing some growing pains, it’s certainly not the unruly red-headed stepchild that the critics make it out to be.

While the reality genre extends back into the 1970s, the modern era of reality began back on March 31, 2000 with the original cast of Survivor. At the time, reality TV was confined to MTV-Real-Worldeque shows, but Richard Hatch and his gang of merry – and backstabbing – men and women captivated a mass audience like never before.

Once again, a TV show became water cooler talk. People had their favourites, joined office pools, gathered at each other’s homes for Survivor parties. And each and every week people sat riveted to the actions of 16 average Americans stranded on Puala Tiga.

Just as quickly as Survivor-fever spread, so too did the critics of the genre proliferate. And, as more and more networks and shows jumped on the Reality TV bandwagon, the louder and more vociferous the expressed distain for the genre became.

As it stands now, people either love Reality TV or look down their noses at it. Worst of all, the criticism of this particular style of television extends towards its viewers’ collective intelligence. It’s been referred to as mindless and the signal that the end of culture is upon us.

But, essentially, Reality TV is no different than any other genre. The pseudo-intellectual snobs may look down on TV as a whole, but the fact of the matter is that TV is a significant component of our society’s lifestyle. Those that say that TV is not as worthwhile as theatre are missing the point that TV is simply an evolution of the theatre-going impulse. As a society, we have a need to see our lives reflected back to us, either in the form of comedy or drama. This is no different than the citizens of Ancient Greece going to hear speeches, or those who live in Shakespeare’s time heading to the theatre for the latest play.

It’s all about entertainment, and TV had brought the message to the masses, instead of the masses – and usually the affluent – having to travel to the message itself. It’s no worse or better than its predecessor, and it certainly doesn’t prevent you from picking up a book or going to a play from time to time. In fact, critics of TV are just as myopic in their view as those who only watch TV. Being well-rounded in today’s world means having an appreciation for all media.

While people feel free to lump the good and the bad of Reality into one big pile, they don’t see the need to do the same for scripted shows. It’s unfair to quality Reality shows like The Amazing Race, which pays respect to the cultures and unique aspects of each country it visits, to lump it in with The Bachelor or Britney & Kevin’s mind-numbingly painful show. But to neglect the good shows simply because of the abundance of bad in the genre is akin to throwing out the CSI’s because of the existence of Walker, Texas Ranger. They’re both police shows, but I don’t hear anyone using Chuck Norris as their standard-bearer for the cop drama.

In fact, scripted TV is as bad – if not worse – than its Reality cousin when it comes to recycling the same idea. At least Reality understands that having a unique twist is the only way to carve a niche in the marketplace. Scripted TV sees the success of one show and then heads right away to the photocopier with the latest script. Take a turn around the dial and how many times will you see the same three or four types of shows? How many comedies follow the formula of “take one heavy guy, add one hot wife, throw in a precocious kid or two, shake and serve”?

Don’t forget the sheer volume created by the Law and Order and CSI franchises – the TV market is saturated with police, legal, and investigative copycats. Add to that the cookie-cutter medical dramas and the argument that scripted drama is more valid than Reality flies out the window.

But reality is in danger of falling into that same rut. The makeover show concept is spreading like cockroaches. You can’t turn to any station without seeing someone’s home, restaurant, or life getting remade. It seems that literally watching paint dry has become a viable option. But obviously there’s a market for this type of repetition, just like there is for recycled situation comedies and formulaic dramas.

Reality isn’t even reality. It’s a heavily-edited version of reality that is fed to us in small bites. True reality would be cutting a hole in the wall between you and your neighbour’s house so that you can watch each other sitting on the couch in your boxers. But that’s not the Reality that people want. They want everyday people put into extraordinary situations, they want conflict, and – most of all – they want to be entertained.

Different is the key in all genres. Desperate Housewives succeeded because it was so unique to what was on the networks. And, those of us with cable know there’s an entire world of programming out there to satisfy everyone’s taste.

And, most importantly, you have the ultimate power in what you watch. The remote is in your hand – no one’s forcing you to watch something you don’t want to watch. Change the channel, find something new.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved