Don't be fooled. This showcase for Jean Christophe Novelli is no 'Top Chef'
Despite being a hybrid of two genres Bravo does very well, the cable network's new series "Chef Academy" is a disappointing Frankenstein's monster of a show.
Although the new season of Food Network's "Next Iron Chef" is making a compelling campaign for the genre's summit, Bravo's competition cooking shows are the best in the business. "Top Chef" remains the industry's gold standard and will likely take a place in my Top 10 for the year, while "Top Chef Masters" was an entertaining and worthy space-filler between "Top Chef" seasons. I'll even watch the upcoming "Just Desserts," from the "Top Chef" creative pipeline.
While I'm not a big fan personally, I know lots of people enjoy Bravo's crazy-boss-and-put-upon-assistants shows. I'm talking about things like "Flipping Out" and "Millionaire Matchmaker" and several other past favorites, where we were treated to largely contrived, but allegedly real glimpses at eccentric professionals and their long-suffering underlings.
"Chef Academy" tries to fuse the two genres, with very little success on either front.
[Review of "Chef Academy," which premieres on Monday, Nov. 16, after the break...]
The star of "Chef Academy" is Jean Christophe Novelli. Yes, he's a Michelin-starred chef and yes he runs restaurants around the world and yes he has a cooking academy in England, but in the first 30 seconds of the episode, we hear multiple times about Novelli's crowning as World's Sexiest Chef.
In what was probably a natural decision, Novelli decided the next frontier to cross was the United States, so he decided to come open an academy in Los Angeles. In what was probably a less natural decision, he decided to start this academy on the fly in a trendy Venice Beach pad, with the cooking area getting secondary priority to the swimming pool and home entertainment area. In what was probably the least natural decision, he filled the positions for his academy based on a reality TV auditioning process, very clearly filling his rolls based on the input of Bravo casting directors rather than any instructor-ly instincts of his own.
Novelli arrives in the United States accompanied by his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and assistant Steven Kitchen. Yes, his name is Steven Kitchen. And Novelli is assigned a personal assistant, Joel, whose major qualification is a former gig as Tori Spelling's assistant and his utter lack of knowledge regarding food or whatever it is that the person he's supposed to be assisting does for a living.
Now there's one approach to "Chef Academy" wherein we would actually spend time with Novelli, Michelle, Joel and Kitchen seeing the process of starting this academy. In that situation, presumably Novelli would have have an actual hand in choosing his working space, selecting his initial pupils and investing in advancing the reputation of his academy. That show might be entertaining on its own if Novelli kept his clearly unqualified Bravo-provided personal assistant and just yelled at him for an hour every week.
Part of why Bravo's other shows in that genre succeed is that they can concentrate on a small core, while taking a client-of-the-week episodic approach. With "Chef Academy," screentime also has to be dedicated to the wacky students in Novelli's first academy place. Early standouts include Kyle, a driven sous chef with more training than the other eight combined, Emmanuel, a laconic Frenchman with deadline difficulties, Carissa, who only wants to learn to cook well for her future husband, and Suzanne, a real housewife from Orange County.
In order to give screentime to all of these character, "Chef Academy" has a superfluous and derivative competition element. Novelli throws out all legitimacy for his academy on Day One, when he puts the cheftestants on the clock to make their signature dishes.
"Signature dish? This isn't 'Top Chef.' I don't have a signature dish," observes Tracie, a 45-year-old television producer.
I don't blame her incredulity.
Novelli then critiques and scores the signature dishes. Contestants who fail three challenges get eliminated. Those who don't get eliminated, remain the competition for the chance to win... A diploma from Novelli's cooking academy. Woo! If that's not anti-climactic enough, the challenge has a winner who receives... Absolutely nothing. But apparently you couldn't have a show where we just watch The World's Sexiest Chef teaching people to cook without grafting a competition element onto it.
While the show's structure flaws are myriad, what really crushes "Chef Academy" is the fact that Jean Christophe Novelli may be good looking, but he isn't actually all that interesting. He's just another TV chef with a thick accent and not-so-creative insults for food he dubs inedible. That's not enough. How much better with "Chef Academy" work if this academy were run by Fabio and Stefan from "Top Chef"? Infinitely. They don't have the Michelin stars and they don't have the New York Times stamp-of-sexiness-approval, but they have personalities. The only notable thing about Novelli is his inexplicably dated set of pop culture references. The only celebrity he wants to meet is Columbo and he does an awful Peter Falk impression. He later compares a contestant to Samantha from "Bewitched." He isn't charming or funny and it's a bit sad that the signature dish he showcases for his pupils is a style-over-substance dessert with a caramel bird's next.
With another strong season of "Top Chef" coming to an end, Bravo is obviously hoping that viewers turn to "Chef Academy" as a between-cycles proxy. If the premiere is any indication, this is a strategy that probably won't succeed.
"Chef Academy" premieres at 11 p.m. on Monday (Nov. 16) night on Bravo.
Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel's miniseries makes an admirable attempt to escape Patrick McGoohan's shadow
Sure. Like many critics and TV aficionados, I'm a "Prisoner" snob.
I own Patrick McGoohan's 17-episode classic on video (not all that useful currently) and on DVD (already outmoded, with a spiffy new Blu-Ray set on shelves). In grad school, I wrote at least two lengthy papers that used "The Prisoner" as a primary text, including one comparing the show to "Gilligan's Island" as a study in 1960s displacement narratives as seen through British and American cultural prisms. Let me add that I'm a pretentious "Prisoner" snob.
So I know as well as anybody that AMC's six-episode miniseries reinterpretation of "The Prisoner" isn't *that* "Prisoner." It lacks the elegance and literacy of McGoohan's creation, as well as its trippy delirium and flair. In fact, as free-flowing reinterpretations of "The Prisoner" go, "Cape Wrath," a Channel 4 creation that aired on Showtime as "Meadowlands," may have been a more faithful (if uncredited and unintended) adaptation.
My biggest concern about the new "Prisoner" was that it was might be made without any particular impetus, the sort of pointless remake-for-remakes-sake reboot that already gluts the primetime landscape (think "Eastwick" or "Melrose Place" or even, if the second episode is any indication, "V").
But here's the thing that surprised me: AMC's "The Prisoner," written by Bill Gallagher and directed by Nick Hurran, has its own agenda. While it aims for a similar sense of disorientation and alienation and while it shares a few character names and locations with McGoohan's "Prisoner," it isn't trying to be a carbon copy. This new "Prisoner" is not lacking for a purpose, a theme and a very specific and contemporary message, though you may need to make it to the very end to see how the pieces tie into that thesis.
Despite four decades of TV creators ripping off the original, the new "Prisoner" is not, actually, superfluous. Over the course of six hours, I was pleased by how effectively it strung me along and by how much it gave me to chew over by its conclusion.
The faster you leave behind your residual baggage from the original and concentrate on the things that *this* "Prisoner" is doing, the more likely you will be to enjoy the satisfying sense of bafflement it generates.
[Full recap, some minor spoilers included, after the break...]
'Jericho' veteran discusses overcoming his trepidation to play 147 for AMC's miniseries
As one of the stars of CBS' "Jericho," Lennie James knows a thing or two about shows with obsessive fanbases, so he also knows what he's getting himself into on AMC's reimagining of "The Prisoner."
In "The Prisoner," James plays 147, a helpful cabbie who welcomes Jim Caviezel's 6 into The Village. 147 is one of many characters in AMC's "Prisoner" who didn't feature in Patrick McGoohan's original, which ran from 1967-68 and is considered one of the small screen's pinnacles.
147 has a beautiful wife, a precocious daughter and the perfect life in The Village. Of course, nothing is as it seems in The Village or on "The Prisoner" or with James, a London-born actor and writer who is, as on "Jericho," playing an inscrutable American.
HitFix caught up with James last week to discuss how he was able to overcome his initial reservations toward redoing "The Prisoner" and why this new "Prisoner" is 2009-ready.
'Independence Day' director's new disaster film is slaphappy ludicrousness taken to an epic level
I know people who take issue with the plausibility of "Independence Day."
They aren't uncomfortable with the aliens, with the destruction or with Jeff Goldblum's clever and climactic use of a computer virus to mock their advanced technology.
No, more than anything, when I hear people discuss the absurdity of "Independence Day," they complain about that darned dog in the tunnel. It's like the pinnacle of sentiment and absurdity, where audiences ignore the thousands of human casualties, but cheer as Will Smith's pooch is somehow able to avoid a fireball of devastation, defying both logic and sheer animal mechanics.
It's a ridiculous scene, but I still remember the audience bursting into cheers when I saw "ID4" in theaters and I'm assuming a similar reaction played out around the world. Some forms of cathartic goofiness are just universal.
Roland Emmerich's "2012" is disaster filmmaking boiled down to a very peculiar essence. It's over two-and-a-half hours that simulate the experience of the "ID4" dog outrunning the fireball. It's slaphappy ludicrousness taken to an epic level.
You can walk out of "2012" complaining about the acting or the writing or nitpicking the seemingly endless details that either don't make a lick of sense or would probably be offensive if you gave them half-a-consideration. But you can't walk out of "2012" saying that Emmerich delivered anything less than exactly what was promised in the trailer or that the film's budget, doubtlessly outrageous, wasn't thoroughly reflected on the screen.
Yes, "2012" is brainless bunk, but what gloriously brainless bunk.
[More review after the break...]
The 'Day After Tomorrow' and 'Independence Day' helm talks about disasters, religion and Shakespeare
It's the end of the world as we know it, but Roland Emmerich feels fine.
And he should feel fine.
No filmmaker of his generation has made more money off of destroying the world, one internationally famous landmark at a time.
Between "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow," Emmerich's disaster oeuvre has yielded more than $1.7 billion in worldwide box office (that doesn't take into account films like "Stargate," "10,000 B.C." and "The Patriot").
On Friday (Nov. 13), Emmerich's latest global destroyer hits theaters. Given the other names on his resume, it's hard to believe, but "2012" is Emmerich's largest film to date, at least in terms of scope. Yes, he destroys the White House (again), knocks California into the Pacific and sends a tidal wave cascading over the Himalayas, but those are only the epic moments Sony has seen fit to feature in trailers. There's another two-hours of chaos and survival you've yet to see.
HitFix caught up with Emmerich at the "2012" press junket in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just down the road (if you have a couple hours to drive) from Yellowstone Park (which "2012" teaches us is actually a vast, ready-to-blow super-volcano). As befits the scale of the movie, we held our conversation in a cavernous, empty lodge-style meeting room, with ceilings so high the echo is featured in our recording like another interview participant.
We talked about disaster, religion, making time to develop characters and also his upcoming movie "Anonymous," in which he leaves cataclysms behind for a thriller about William Shakespeare.
[Full interview after the break...]
Titled 'Balm,' Tuesday's episode is extra-long and extra-powerful
For the past few weeks, I've been struggling with "Sons of Anarchy." Not in a bad way. No, I've been struggling with the inevitability that "Sons of Anarchy," a show I actually quit watching for several episodes in ins first season due to what I was perceiving as needlessly Byzantine plotting, is going to find its way to a very high position on my Top 10 list for 2009. And that isn't something that usually happens.
I almost never quit on TV shows once I've committed to them. Heck, it took "One Tree Hill" six seasons before I admitted to myself that the guilty pleasure was only making me guilty. And once I'm out? That's usually it. But I can back for the "Sons of Anarchy" finale in the first season and I've been relishing a second season that keeps getting better. Every once in a while, a character mentions something that I can only guess happened in the two or three episodes I bailed on, but those gaps don't bother me.
"Sons of Anarchy" has, in fact, become a show so good that no matter how heavily serialized it is, the best episodes can stand mostly alone.
And Tuesday (Nov. 10) night's "Sons of Anarchy" is the show's best episode to date.
[More teasing of Tuesday's episode, but only minimal spoiling (VERY minimal) after the break...]
Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson boxed and Don Draper kicked in a door on a busy finale Sunday
I don't know about you, dear readers, by my Sunday night TV viewing is about to become a good deal less enjoyable. Sure, we'll still have a few weeks of this top-notch "Curb Your Enthusiasm" season and a few weeks of another familiar-yet-intriguing "Dexter" season and we'll still have FOX's animated comedies and "Brothers & Sisters" until I can finally drop that one from my DVR.
But even with those shows, plus Sunday Night Football (and the start of the NBA and college hoops seasons), filling my time and clogging my DVR, they aren't going to take the place in my heart formerly occupied by "Mad Men" and (to a lesser degree) "Bored to Death."
One of my favorite new comedies of the fall and the undisputed champ of TV drama ended their seasons on Sunday (Nov. 8). Ryan McGee already did a terrific job of recapping the "Mad Men" finale, so I may concentrate on the "Bored to Death" finale after the break.
Oh, who am I kidding? I'm probably going to talk mostly about "Mad Men," which has had a night to marinate in my brain... After the break...
In her FOX late night premiere, Wanda Sykes made it clear that she isn't pulling punches
Allow me to begin my discussion of Saturday (Nov. 7) night's premiere of FOX's "The Wanda Sykes Show" with a caveat: It's completely unfair to critique a talk show on the basis of any one episode, especially its first episode. I know this fact, but in the past six months, I've provided this sort of initial evaluation (sometimes calling them reviews, sometimes not) for Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno, so if I didn't do the same for Wanda Sykes, I'm sure she'd be offended.
[Well, she probably wouldn't actually be offended. Not by me allowing her time to find the structure and voice of her show. In fact, she'd probably be appreciative. If she noticed at all. Which she wouldn't.]
So, that being said, my first reactions to "The Wanda Sykes Show" -- not quite a review, but more like a review than not like a review -- after after the break...
Wanda tackles late night with a new FOX series premiering on Saturday, Nov. 7
It's not just you. Wanda Sykes actually is everywhere.
She plays Barb on CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine." She pops up on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" whenever Larry David needs the perfect actress to play Wanda Sykes. She's the voice of a cow on Nickelodeon's "Back at the Barnyard." She's high on every talk show host's lists of favorite guests. And she just earned some of the best reviews of her career for the HBO comedy special "Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me," in which she discussed everything from Barack Obama to parenting to belly fat.
Naturally, what Wanda Sykes really needs is yet another television gig.
Starting on Saturday, Nov. 7, the versatile comedian (and Emmy-winning writer) will become the latest performer tasked with kick-starting FOX's late night programming. The creatively titled "The Wanda Sykes Show" will air in the 11 p.m. hour on Saturday nights, a slot where her major mandate will be "Generate more buzz than Spike Feresten." Somehow we think the "Wanda at Large" star won't have any trouble with that one.
Certainly Sykes has a flashier set than Feresten's low-frills digs, with a handsome stage on the CBS Television City lot festooned with a giant "W" (Sykes jokes that she got it at a Mo'Nique yard sale and flipped it) that doubles as a bar.
At a recent event introducing her show (and its set) to a few members of the Los Angeles-based press, HitFix snagged five minutes with Sykes to discuss why, exactly, she though she needed more work and why late night was the place for her.
[Full text of the interview after the break... Oh and if Wanda features the game "Jewish, Canadian or Dead" on an upcoming episode, we want full credit...]
ESPN doc series keeps tackling tragedies, focusing on Len Bias and Jimmy the Greek
Another week, another sporting tragedy courtesy of ESPN's exemplary "30 for 30" documentary franchise.
It turns out that giving 30 filmmakers carte blanche to tell the sporting stories of their choosing means a lot of sadness and a lot of attempted catharsis.
We've already had the tragic story of a boxer who fought for too long ("Muhammad and Larry"), the tragic story of a football league murdered by Donald Trump ("Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?") and the tragic story of a city that lost a hockey icon ("Kings Ransom"). Even "The Band That Wouldn't Die," a phoenix-from-the-ashes tale, begins with the tragic story of a city abandoned and betrayed by its NFL franchise.
And if you thought those "30 for 30" installments were tragic, wait till you get a load of the series' next two hours, "Without Bias" and "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek."
Looking ahead, "30 for 30" has more tragedies to come, but there also seem to be a couple purely inspirational tales on tap (mostly in 2010), but only Bill Simmons and company know for sure why we've led off with six consecutive weeks of "30 for 30" pathos.
I've already waxed sufficiently rhapsodic about the overall awesomeness of the "30 for 30" endeavor, but I've still got small-ish reviews of "Without Bias" and "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" after the break...