September 22, 2007

TV: Kitchen Nightmares (Fox, Wednesday 9/8)

For three years now, Gordon Ramsay has been humiliating would-be chefs on Hell's Kitchen, which is like Top Chef for masochists. He screams, he berates, he belittles -- and now he takes his shtick out into the real world to yell at restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares.

Each week, Ramsay visits a restaurant in crisis and helps them solve their problems. In the opener, it's Peter's, a family-owned Italian restaurant in Babylon, New York. Peter's has lots of problems -- the kitchen is in disrepair, so the food isn't very good; the menu is outdated; the Pellegrino family and their staff spend more time arguing than working -- but the biggest problem is obvious in the first five minutes. It's Peter, co-owner (with his sister) and manager; he's an abusive thug with no people skills who sees the restaurant as his personal cash box. He drives a flashy car, dresses far better than the rest of his family, and interrupts the staff with constant demands to fetch him an appetizer or an espresso.

Ramsay does what it takes to solve the restaurant's problems. He installs a new kitchen, with new appliances and bright shiny countertops; he helps revise the menu with an eye towards family dining, a niche not being served by any of Babylon's other Italian restaurants.

And at the end of the show, he finally confronts Peter, demanding that he make a real commitment to the business. I'd been looking forward to that moment, thinking that when these two assholes finally went head to head, there was a chance that one might kill the other, leaving the world with one less asshole, which wouldn't be a bad thing, right? But much to my surprise, Peter listens and seems to get his act together. What's missing from the story is long-range followup: Is Peter still cooperating and working productively six months after Ramsay's visit? (That's probably a May sweeps episode in the making, as we drop in on all of the restaurants from earlier episodes.)

Ramsay is a bit less obnoxious here than he is on Hell's Kitchen; small business owners, it seems, aren't quite so willing to be abused as reality-show contestants are. But he's still an overbearing jerk, with not enough charm or wit to make the insults and abuse entertaining. I suppose the audience that's kept Hell's Kitchen around for three years will love this, but are there enough of them to let the show survive in a very crowded time slot (Bionic Woman; Private Practice, Gossip Girl; Criminal Minds)?

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