This Sunday, Food Network Star, a television show in which people in the throes of a terribly ill-advised career change are mined by a trio of sociopathic celebrity chefs for something, anything that can be used as fodder for an imagined brand, premieres its tenth season. It is the worst thing on television. Worse than The Bachelorette. Worse than The Newsroom. Arguably worse than The Big Bang Theory, (but I’m willing to hear the opposing viewpoint on that). Food Network Star is so intellectually offensive and so cringeworthy in such a post-postmodernist, corporatist and lazily transparent manner that winds up bearing a strong resemblance to the contestants’ food: fascinatingly artless slop.
Of course, how could the machine that launched the career of the Guy Fieri, Mayor of Flavortown, “human hot wing,” inventor of the Ain’t No Thing Butta Chicken Wings and contributing author of the cookbook written by his 90’s-era doppelganger Smash Mouth: Recipes From The Road, be anything but? Fieri is the best possible outcome of Food Network Star, a show that preys on contestants’ ability to energetically spout nonsensical words whilst preparing food, any food, as long as it is recognizable as such. More importantly, they must prepare food that fits within the particular phrasing of the contestant’s “P.O.V.,” or that part of their identity that the aforementioned trio have deemed most bankable (e.g. “You’re a Cuban guy who wants to teach young men that it’s cool to cook but you also used to be obese? Let’s go with the obese part,” which is exactly what happened last season).
Besides Fieri, Melissa d’Arabian (host of Ten Dollar Dinners) and to a certain extent, Justin Warner, the season eight winner (whose POV was “Rebel With A Culinary Cause”) and owner of Bed-Stuy’s Do or Dine, pretty much every Food Network Star has turned out to be quite the opposite of that, including season three winner Amy Finley, who was later known for being eliminated first in an episode of Chopped, and “The Hearty Boys,” who, after winning season one, went on to… continue running their catering company, “The Hearty Boys.”
Even before the contestants face their mentors, Giada, Alton and Bobby, this Sunday, it’s clear how this season will play out, thanks to the bios, interviews, head shots and audition tapes released by the Food Network to create buzz before the show premieres. While they haven’t chosen their POVs yet (that’s done with the help of Flay et. al. during the show), we have a pretty good idea of what’s coming, because it will be exactly the same as what came the last nine seasons: a seemingly endless parade of shameless mediocrity that can be categorized into four discrete types, as described by Grantland:
There are the Health Crusaders,3 doomed by their limited palates and scoldy POV. (No one wants to watch a half-hour on the glories of kale after binge-watching Cupcake Wars; it’d be like programming The 700 Club after Zane’s Sex Chronicles.) There are the Ethnics, talented and fascinating individuals forced to turn their personal cultural histories into dumbed-down grist for the human interest mill. There are the Guy’s Guys Who Act Like Guy, braying meatballs who specialize in spicing shit up and dumbing shit down. And then, most heartbreaking of all, there are the poor, misguided Competents…the blinkered line cooks and semi-successful caterers.
Take Sarah Penrod, for example, a big-haired, blonde “born-and-bred Texan.” There are two paths for Ms. Penrod: Either she cutely cooks Southern dude food with a wink and a flannel button-down, or she’s a brunching #GirlBoss armed with chocolate and pink power-blazers. (I’m banking on the latter.) Another Food Network Star staple is Loreal Gavin, the full-figured pin-up punk, an expert in niche culinary realms like butchery and pastry shops while wearing tattoos and 1940’s-red lipstick.
There is the hot Italian cooking his grandmother’s recipes, the city-savvy NYC food truck owner (Kenny Lao of Rickshaw Dumplings), the “girl-next-door blogger“, the Stepford-esque health shamer and the guy who’s from New Orleans; there are the familiar waxy smiles of Giada, Bobby, and in Alton’s case, menacing grimace; there are the looming logos of the Food Network and its advertisers; there are 10-minute “challenges” and elevator pitches and elimination rounds (and “redemption” rounds!); there is a season winner who gets a 30-minute show, and that is all. And it goes down like a Big Mac. That is, immensely satisfying, so-delicious-that-it-should-probably-be-illegal garbage.
Follow Rebecca Jennings on Twitter @rebexxxxa