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Torture Basket

In the teaser for episode four of Not Necessarily The Next Food Network Star, a stern and cruel-sounding Susie Fogelson is seen dressed in gay apparel whilst attempting to make it abundantly clear to a presently-unknown Sith Apprentice that, ‘You’re not delivering anything memorable!’

In many ways, her statement sums up my feelings on this New & Improved version of the programme in a very simple and concise manner. Food Network seem to believe they have rather miraculously managed to put a fresh, exciting spin on this tattered old concept of theirs when, in reality, they have sucked the very life out of it – if it had any life remaining – as it lay sputtering and dying on the studio floor, eyes wide and filled with despair.

As a means of illustrating this lifelessness, the third episode, called Dessert Chopping Block, was a half-hour episode packed tightly into just 90 fleeting minutes of almost some interest because it harkened back to episodes of year’s past. It opened with the once-obligatory and familiar segment of Sith Apprentices rising to face a new day full of new challenges and new personal demons to slay. Martie With The Partie, being the oldest member of the group, reflected on how her age, which she described in her bio as being ‘somewhere over thirty-years-old,’ may play a role in her varying levels of confidence and self-esteem, especially when she realises that she is surrounded by young, beautiful women and Michele. It was also pinpointing her as the next likely target to be eliminated which, as we all know from previous years, wouldn’t happen in this episode. In a future one, surely. But this was typical Food Network Diversionary Editing Tactic No. 1, used to such little effect last year to play on Cold Steel Whitney’s personal fears and to make viewers believe she was next to go home and wasn’t.

Almost immediately thereafter we returned to another once-obligatory segment of the Sith Apprentices being whisked away to their next destination in a fleet of shiny Black Ops SUVs provided by Buick (all promotional considerations paid), which were seen in dramatic action shots and tilted angles to look far more exciting than they truly are – like a crap, low-rent take on the equally crap and low-rent US version of Top Gear.

After that, as you might probably have already guessed, we were quickly taken to the Food Network Kitchens for the equally once-obligatory gathering together of the Sith hopefuls to be congratulated on making it to the third most unexciting 90-minutes of television since the last most unexciting 90-minutes of television and to hear about the tedious Star Challenge.

‘This week,’ Darth Giada spoke with great enthusiasm, ‘it’s all about food expertise,’ which, to my way of thinking, was very much like describing HGTVs Design Star as all about interior décor. ‘So we’re bringing in a few people,’ she went on, ‘who know a thing or two about that.’

‘That’ being food expertise, not interior décor.

And those ‘few people,’ if it wasn’t obvious in the title or in the teaser or in the endless adverts squeezed into every available inch of air time on Food Network over the last week, were Scott Conant, Alex ‘Take No Prisoners’ Guarnaschelli (and we got to see a little awkward editing where she presumably was laughing at this new description of herself), and Marc Murphy, together ‘one of the most feared panel of judges in food,’ Dark Lord Flay announced without a trace of interest. ‘They are the judges of the hit show on Food Network, Chopped.’ His excitement level in making this needless addition could only have been surpassed by announcing that ‘head cheese’ is not a dairy product.

Having the Sith Apprentices pretend to be on an episode of Chopped is a fairly radical departure from the previous norm of Next Food Network Star and an interesting trek into uncharted territory for this New & Improved series. It’s so new and so innovative and something so unique that I had to walk into the next room and scoop out the litter pan and take the recycling bin out and do a few other odd fiddly things.

Also the ridiculously-named ‘The Network’ was there.

And as ‘a stark reminder that this is, after all, an individual competition,’ Sith Master Alton Brown explained that the Star Challenge this week would place the Apprentices in direct competition with each other, and they were all appropriately stunned with the help of careful editing. They would compete against other members of their own team and one loser from each team would be up for elimination and would face off in the Producer Challenge – something of a sudden-death cook-off.

As seen on Chopped, each of the three teams would have a basket of four ingredients and, as Sith Master Alton pressed on, ‘thirty short eentsie-beentsie little minutes’ to prepare a dessert from those ingredients. Unlike Chopped, however, and continuing to wade deep into unfamiliar waters, the Sith Apprentices would then have to present their dishes to ‘the most feared panel of judges’ – BUT!

Wait for it…

Sith Master Alton added that they would have to include in their 60-second ‘intro’  (which is industry-speak for ‘introduction’), ‘a culinary tip, if you will, to show off your expertise,’ and they were all quite stunned via thoughtful post-production. The cunning and evil architects behind these infinitely diabolical rule-twistings must be congratulated for the constant New & Improved ideas they have carefully crammed into every subtle nuance of this new Not Necessarily The Next Food Network Star and making it unlike anything we have experienced before.

Unfortunately the editors lacked the same amazing and crafty touch as their Masters, and as Team Alton were told to ‘go stand behind your baskets,’ the Sith Apprentices were jarringly and without any warning suddenly seen to be standing in the Chopped Jr kitchen all dressed in grey chef’s coats without having had any intermediate steps involved. This juxtaposition of elements is often referred to as a ‘jump cut’ and speaks to a dramatic lack of technical ability. A simple transition would have been nice. But with only 90-minutes allocated for this special episode, there was probably very little time to waste with such trivialities as adequate scene transitions – not when they had to make room for doing everything possible to make Martie With The Partie seem absurdly inept and ready to be eliminated.

Sith Master Alton, having a bit of a meltdown with her at one point, was seen to shout, ‘Ms Duncan!  If you can’t cook and talk at the same time – shut up and cook!’  And as ‘the most feared panel of judges’ and ‘The Network’ stared at him for his outburst in what appeared to be carefully posed shots, he said, ‘Sorry’ almost as though he wasn’t acting.

There was also time in the editing process for languishing shots of Hershey’s Kisses Chocolates (all promotional considerations paid) which the Sith Apprentices rather awkwardly held towards the camera and then placed cautiously on the stainless steel table so that we at home could clearly read the packaging. The chocolates were part of the Team Alton Ingredient Baskets which also included pancetta, graham crackers, and kumquats.

The overlong ‘cooking segment’ included, apart from Martie’s supposed ineptitude and distracting focus on her age, the fact that Justin attempted to melt his chocolate candies with the foil wrappers still on them and then tried to supplement this mistake with microwaved chocolate bits which he burnt, and also Whinging Twat Judson whinging about how dessert brings back bad memories of his ‘personal weigh-loss journey.’ His apprehensions aside, however, he managed to deliver an undercooked wad of cake which paled in comparison to Emily’s nearly flawless cupcake and the surprisingly good no-bake cookie Justin managed to execute despite the adventurous editing to the contrary. To further solidify Martie’s likely elimination in another episode, her S’mores were not very good and Sith Master Alton admonished her for beating the dead horse of her age-issues.

It is interesting, too, that Marc Murphy noted that part of the failure of Martie’s dish was that she did not really ‘transform’ the ingredients, a much-discussed ‘rule’ on the set of Chopped, yet one not frequently adhered to and certainly one that is never fully nor formally explained in any detail and often left as ‘understood.’

Also, some of the first bits of advertising seen after this segment were for Buick and Hershey’s Kisses Chocolates. Funny, that.

The Ingredient Baskets for Team Flay (wearing black, of course) were Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bars (all promotional considerations paid), pineapple, pasta sheets, and black lava salt. Those for Team Giada (dressed in virginal white) were Reese’s Pieces candy (all promotional considerations paid), unpopped pop corn, coconut, and grape soda. Upon seeing her Team’s ingredients, Darth Giada turned to ‘the most feared panel of judges in food’ and scowled, saying, ‘I’m irritated.’

In a very prophetic statement, Martita (inexplicably the current ‘fan favourite’ on the Food Network site for no reason I can comprehend) called this ‘a torture basket,’ also concisely defining the New & Improved Not Necessarily The Next Food Network Star.

The next 30 minutes were simply full to the brim with riveting moments such as:

Eric claiming that cooking food would be his ‘little secret weapon’ to help him win the cooking challenge…

Martita forgetting to include her ‘culinary tip’ and personal reflection in her introduction…

Josh also forgetting to include his ‘culinary tip’ and not entirely popping his popcorn…

Darth Giada putting ‘the whammy’ (or the power of The Dark Side of The Force) on Michele and ‘freaking her out…’

Nikki delivering an infommercial-style introduction and believing that bread pudding could set in less than 15 minutes and having Scott Conant suggest that it was ‘like soup…’

Darth Giada telling Yvan that his Culinary Point of View (CPOV) ought to be ‘Family Style’ which also didn’t work for Aria in series 6…

And perhaps more surprising than all of this was Yvan mentioning that he’d actually been on Chopped once before – a fact confirmed by a quick glance at the Chopped wiki in which one can find that Yvon Lemoine was indeed a competitor in series 2 in 2009, episode 6, ‘A Prickly Situation,’ where he was eliminated in the dessert round. Funny Alex Guarnaschelli never mentioned this, as she was one of the judges on that episode along with Aarón Sánchez and Chris Santos.

Seems the ‘The Network’ have no compunction with allowing a former contender on Chopped to vie for a spot amongst the Food Network pantheon by having to perform in a Chopped-style contest which no-one else had done. Sure. That seems perfectly fair to me.

Of course it was no surprise at all, after their compulsory post-trial pep talk and then gathering before the Giant Cartoon Doors to listen to SyFy Channel’s Face Off theme as ‘The Network’ marched out, that Martie With The Partie, Nikki, and Rock n’ Roll Josh were up for elimination in the Producer Challenge. This would be a something of sudden-death cook off in which the bottom three Sith Apprentices would have just 30 minutes (again) to prepare an amazing dish – and offer a one-minute presentation for it (again) ‘to camera’ (again) – in effort to prove themselves worthy of continuing on to the next level of competition (again).

The nature of this challenge would be to answer the apparently most-asked question on Food Network’s website, which is How Large Are Sandra Lee’s Breasts, If You Don’t Have an Outside Grill, What Can You Make?  What this fairly ambiguous and poorly-crafted question does not clarify, of course, is that it seeks to discover what, in the absence of a proper outside grill, might one grill indoors and how might this be done.

Once the cooking commenced, Nikki shouted out ‘Who’s ready for some girl-on-girl action?’ and, shockingly, Michele was the loudest in affirmative response. Turns out, unfortunately, that it was girl-on-grill action – an innuendo she would later be told was too risqué for Food Network’s TV-Y rating.

Shortly thereafter, in the Inner Sanctum at the Eye of Sauron table, Nikki was also told by Bob T that, apart from her inappropriately entendre-laden presentation, she ‘just went from forgettable to a contender in sixty-seconds flat.’ Dark Lord Flay felt he had to remind ‘The Network’ that this single presentation wasn’t meant to be Nikki’s Emmy performance, just a simple food introduction. His remarks noted, Bob T and Susie had sufficient means to consider Nikki ‘safe’ and sent her and her Mentor on their merry way so that they might turn their ire upon Martie and Josh.

It seemed Martie’s grilled tuna fish tasted surprisingly like tuna fish, but her genuine qualities with people and before the camera, even with her tendency to ramble along for lengthy periods, were quite rare indeed, and Sith Master Alton felt confident that he could nurture those qualities.

Josh had lost his beat in his presentation and didn’t explain what was in his dish, but it was clear to ‘The Network’ that his Danish-Asian fusion could be a wealth of untapped potential for Food Network if only they didn’t have to cut him loose in order to follow the well-established path of hoping to trick the viewing audience into believing that someone else would be leaving first.

As Josh made his lonely staged walk through the darkened kitchen towards the Giant Cartoon Doors, he rightly indicated that he had followed the instructions and notes given to him by Darth Giada and by ‘The Network,’ though it clearly did little to save him being chopped.

The nature of the ‘deliberation’ between Bob T and Susie Fogelson seemed to hinge upon hoping there was more cooking technique hidden in Martie to balance with her big Southern Charm and, if so, she would be worth saving – though it seemed rather a large ‘if’ in the mind of Susie. As for Josh, they focussed on what they felt was his ‘120-miles-per-hour’ delivery which didn’t work for Susie, but they agreed his Danish background offered something very special.

Of course they followed the same backward logic as last week when, after arguing that Whinging Twat Judson offered them a dull plasticity, a corporate robot personality, and a plate of uninspired food which did not meet the criteria of the challenge, they cut Kara.

Obviously someone had to leave – that’s the nature of  the competition – yet by the standards unevenly employed on the New & Improved Not Necessarily The Next Food Network Star, their choices appear more and more arbitrary, certainly vague, and based upon criteria not entirely shared with the viewers – which is not a terribly good way of gaining the trust or interest of your audience.

And Avery is still shining brightly in Around The World in 80 Plates, so I’m cool with that…

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