John Walker's Electronic House

Kitchen Nightmares – Fox

by on Sep.28, 2007, under Television

Anti-Americanism in the UK is as rife now as it has ever been. People here talk about “Americans” in a way they would find abhorrent if supplanted by any other nation. It’s vulgar. And it’s not exactly helped by Fox.

Kitchen Nightmares – the Channel 4 series in which Gordon Ramsey visits failing restaurants, shouts at them for being idiots, changes their menu, hugs everyone when they make some money the next week, and then gets sued – has followed Hell’s Kitchen across the Atlantic and onto Fox’s main network channel. But, as is often the case, it’s gone under something of a transformation.

The UK’s Kitchen Nightmares is an oddly quaint programme. The restaurants he visits tend to be small, village projects, and supporting them seems almost philanthropic. (Obviously it isn’t – it’s to sell advertising – but the impression is nice). Also, you get to see morons shouted at by a frightening man, which is fun. At first this appears to have been kept intact. The first restaurant is a small Italian family business in a small town, the second a peculiar Indian-cum-American-cum-deathtrap in New York. The temptation to tackle big businesses was avoided, and mercifully.

But as you watch the first episode, the differences become quickly apparent. First of all, the US Hell’s Kitchen melodramatic narrator is back to talk us through what we can see in front of us, rather than the more congenial babbling of Ramsey explaining what he’s up to. (Of course, the narrator is a massive boon to Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, replacing the vile snarking of Angus Deayton). Then there’s the score. Like so many US shows, each 45 minutes is given a unique score to reflect the action – something that can be absolutely fantastic. However, here it’s trying so hard it ends up sounding like a horror movie. Shrieking violins accompany the revealing of cockroaches in the kitchen, and Hell’s Kitchen’s dun-dun-duhhh strings invade every busy scene. It all ends up becoming rather ridiculous, with the fear that at any moment there’s going to be a wacky trombone as someone falls over.

And then it all goes insane. Halfway through the first episode the staff come back to their own restaurant to find their rotting kitchen completely refitted with state of the art equipment. Huh? They were appalling at their jobs, and had let their business fall apart. And the response was to reward them. It made no sense, and it doesn’t fit in with Ramsey’s approach to breaking people down before they can be built up. It made the whole programme feel false, and the results unlikely to survive. Traditionally Ramsey would have made them sell property to afford new equipment, make sacrifices in order to improve. Receiving a gameshow prize left these people where they were, and even endorsed their failure.

Episode two repeats the moment, this time completely refitting the restaurant itself, as well as paying for professional cleaners to clean the kitchens (although thank goodness, because they were infested), and then paying for a double-decker bus to be driven around New York promoting the business. However, thankfully episode two brings back two vital ingredients that make the show worthwhile. Firstly, we get to see Gordon topless – a feature of the UK version that appeared in every episode for unknowable reasons, but was always hilarious. And secondly, he harrasses one dreadful idiot to the point where he quits, and gives the restaurant a chance. It was interesting to see the comparison with episode one, where he pushed the large Italian American brute to his very limit, looking likely to get flattened at any moment, but instead having him back down and admit that he was the problem, and changing his ways. In episode two, it’s a slimey Brit who can’t take someone standing up to him, and he eventually slithers away. It gives the results more authenticity, rather than seeing the stupid get rewarded.

But everything that Fox adds, adds nothing. The narration, the score, the ridiculous gameshow prizes, and then on top the treacly eulogies from staff declaring how Saviour Gordon has saved their lives, all create the impression that the programme was too difficult without them. It implies that the audience must be too stupid to manage without someone holding both their hands and pointing everything out for them. And when the British version managed fine without any of this, and the US version implies its audience needs it, it empowers those who believe “Americans” are whichever sweeping generalisation they wish to impose. It would have been so great to have seen Fox try and keep the import in its original format, and see if it succeeds. I believe it is the assumption of a moronic audience that makes the programming so lowbrow, rather than the reality of one. It just seems incredibly unlikely that anyone on a free-to-air network is ever going to take the chance to find out.

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