Everything is bigger in Texas, Bravo’s culinary competition Top Chef keeps reminding us, but the show, which airs Wednesday evenings, has never felt quite so irrelevant and predictable.
Now in its ninth season, Top Chef appears to be a pale imitation of its former self, a reality competition show that turned an often-mysterious world—the thought processes of highly trained chefs, their inspirations, and their imaginations—into something accessible and deeply understandable to the lay viewer. But that was before Bravo’s schedule was littered with various iterations of the Top Chef concept, variations that included pastry chefs, master chefs, and the original-flavor show that started it all. (A planned Top Chef Junior spinoff has wisely never seen the light of day.)
It seems that not a week goes by during the year that some form of the franchise is not airing … and by doing so, Bravo is swiftly running the Emmy-winning show into the ground. The Texas-based ninth season feels entirely tired, the result of overproducing, gimmicky challenges, sponsor tie-ins, and forced drama.
What the Top Chef contestants haven’t gotten to do much of is simply cook. Instead, they’re choosing ingredients from a conveyor belt, participating in the zillionth team challenge, and moving around from city to city (just whose terrible idea was it to keep the chefs on the road, moving them between San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin during the season?).
The bigger, better, bolder concept for the ninth season floundered right away, as producers opted to have the first two episodes cull a group of 29 would-be contestants down to a more manageable 18. I’m not sure whether the Magical Elves producing team thought this would result in the same sort of early-audition drama that American Idol trots out each year, but it rendered the start of the season entirely moot. Why should we care about any of these contestants, lots of whom aren’t going to make the cut?
It was not a strong beginning to a season that feels like it’s dragging on endlessly, offering yet another barbecue/block party/rodeo/banquet challenge week after week or a bizarre (but enjoyable) Snow White and the Huntsman tie-in that had Charlize Theron presiding over a gory banquet that had many questioning whether she was meant to be in character as the Evil Queen. (Universal, which produced the film, is a corporate sibling of Bravo.)
Newly installed judge Emeril Lagasse has added nothing to the proceedings; he’s certainly not a caustic truthteller like Anthony Bourdain, or even an Eric Ripert, whose vast talent and renown in the culinary world made his comments in his impenetrable French accent sound like wisdom from on high. Instead, Emeril’s contribution is a mumbled comment or two here or there. The energy in the room seems to dip every time he appears, while unibrowed and droll Top Chef Masters contestant Hugh Acheson has been MIA far too often.
While the contestants might collectively be a strong group of chefs (certainly there were far fewer obvious duds this time around than in many seasons), there’s also no one with any sort of magnetic quality. One of the strongest chefs, Paul Qui, is far more introverted than the obvious contenders from the previous seasons. While his skill is impressive, he tends to be quiet and determined, rather than capturing the electric charisma of, say, brash culinary showman Michael Voltaggio. Ousted chef Chris Jones appeared to be the second coming of Richard Blais—the Top Chef All-Stars winner whose impressive use of modern techniques and exacting precision made him a fan favorite—but lacked the skill necessary to bring his imagination to life.
What we’re left with, then, is a series of team challenges, always a low point on the Top Chef hierarchy because they force the chefs to subsume their own styles and vision in order to work well with a partner. While this can sometimes yield drama, it often just yields frustration for chef and viewer both. This season saw one of the most talented contenders, Nyesha Arrington, packing her knives early because her partner, Dakota Weiss, screwed up abominably. Nyesha has been competing all season on the Web spinoff Last Chance Kitchen and will likely earn the chance to compete for a spot in the finale. But regardless of her considerable talents, is anyone actually watching the Web series? Even the typically contentious “Restaurant Wars” challenge seemed lackluster this time around, with an unimaginative boys-versus-girls theme, and some derivative fare on offer. Snooze.
It’s all the more surprising that this letdown of a season is coming so soon on the heels of the impressive All-Stars edition of the show, which saw previous fan favorites and worthy competitors return for a second chance at the title. But it does raise the question of whether original-casting cycles of Top Chef can ever recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle excitement of the early seasons. The Washington, D.C.–based Season 7 was also a washout and lacked dynamic personalities in the kitchen.
Not helping: the hokey Web series, the on-the-road-in-Texas travails, and the repetition of scenarios and even dishes (one contestant, the thuggish Heather, cooked the same cake two weeks in a row), which all work against the once-easy tastiness of Top Chef. The effect is rather like a sumptuous multiple-course dinner where the diners are handcuffed to the table. The food might be pretty, but you just want the valet to bring your car around already.
Yes, viewers can opt to change the channel, and they appear to have done so. The ninth-season premiere brought in an audience of roughly 1.6 million. While recent episodes have increased slightly, hovering around the 1.8 million mark, this is a far cry from the Season 5 premiere in 2008, at the height of Top Chef appreciation, which scored 2.7 million viewers.
This is a show that rightly wrested Emmy hegemony away from CBS’s The Amazing Race in 2010, and I’d like to think it can regain its glory if it veers away from the path it’s on right now. Stop the team competitions, stop trying to reinvent the challenges with gimmickry and promotional tie-ins, and start putting the focus back on the cuisine: the conceptualization, the execution, the reactions of diners, the tense deliberations between the judges, and the process itself. What Top Chef used to offer was the ability to live vicariously through the palates of the judges, the food-porn photography, and the competitive streak of chefs who were looking to prove that they had the rights to a title that meant something.
But, as it stands right now, this season of Top Chef has done nothing but sour me on a show I once loved. Check, please.