Judge Adam Arseneau has serious knife skills. The Boy Scouts taught him well.
Bright knives. Big city.
Reality television can be a pretty onerous prospect. Amazingly, cooking competitions seem to strike a particularly palatable balance between debauched exploitation and genuine entertainment, and none have worked the formula with more popularity and success than Bravo with its award-winning hit Top Chef. Now on DVD for the first time, Top Chef: New York, the fifth season of the hit show offers surprisingly good replay value and affordability, but serves up a lackluster presentation.
Facts of the Case
The world-class culinary competition gets hotter in Top Chef: New York, the No. 1 food show on cable, as seventeen of the hottest chefs head to the Big Apple to test their skills and compete for culinary stardom. Featuring some of the biggest names in food and entertainment, including Martha Stewart, the Foo Fighters, Jean-Georges, Rocco DiSpirito, and Eric Ripert, Season Five of this James Beard and Emmy-Award winning series welcomes newbie Toby Young (How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) to the judge's table alongside host Padma Lakshmi, head judge and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons.
I cannot tell a lie. I'm not a fan of reality television. Yet I do quite enjoy Top Chef. Something about it strikes a chord in me—the part that loves to cook and eat—and I'm not alone in my affections. The wildly popular show keeps getting bigger and better, embroiling potential chef after chef into tasks of fiendish difficulty, complexity, and impracticality to test their mettle. Top Chef: New York, Season Five serves up rock stars aplenty, both literal and culinary. Any show that mixes Martha Stewart and the Foo Fighters can't be that bad.
The format is simple: seventeen aspiring cooks crammed into a gleaming kitchen perform two tasks per episode. The first, a Quickfire Challenge, tests the creativity and originality of the contestants, as well as their speed. The winner receives immunity for elimination in the Elimination Challenge, designed to test versatility and execution. Each episode sees a winner and a loser—and the losers pack up their knives in a dramatic faux-montage and hit the bricks, never to be seen again—until the reunion special.
So how does Top Chef manage to cross over audiences from the diehard savage reality show fan into the open market of normal human beings, the kind with actual human souls? Believe it or not, they actually do a fair amount of cooking on Top Chef. Unlike most reality shows, stocked to the brim with crazy people from some suburban hell hole looking for fifteen minutes of fame, these are genuine, bona fide chefs hungry for success and looking for their break. Sure, their level of respective talents varies, and personality conflicts are always apparent, but that's the culinary world for you. Even if you loathe the more irritating elements of reality television, Top Chef is still fascinating. At its core, it's just a big competition—who can cook the best food. No drama, no fuss, no muss. May the best chef win. And it's awesome.
Well, almost. Top Chef: New York does have its fair share of drama, and Bravo is always too happy to indulge audiences with plenty of footage of competitors flirting, sneering, backstabbing, and insulting their fellow competitors. Even more than past seasons, this iteration overflows with drama: Stefan and Fabio being jerks to everyone in eyesight, or everyone snarking on Ariane for being mediocre, or Leah and Hosea cheating on their respective partners back home on cable television…and I just totally disgusted myself with this diatribe. Wow. Part of me wants to eat a gun because I can have a serious, passionate conversation with strangers about who said what to who on Top Chef. Oh, how the snobby have fallen. I'm so ashamed.
A certain amount of inherent evilness is part and parcel with reality television, I realize, but I find Top Chef to be one of the easiest on the market to swallow. Its core concept is compelling, the cooking is real, passionate, and impressive, with combatants kicking out fantastic feasts that dazzle the eye, and the backstabbing ruthlessness that haunts other franchises feels less tacked-on than in other shows. When it pops up, it quickly gets overwhelmed by the cooking. I can live with that. If you're a foodie, it's hard to resist the charms of Top Chef.
Top Chef: New York is the first season to make it to DVD, and it is immediately apparent that the creators of the show never really envisioned its release on this format. The quality of the recording and the image are not at all up to modern television release expectations. The picture is muted in color tone, and abnormally flat and one-dimensional, with pervasive softness and muddled black levels throughout. There is no "wow" factor here—it looks barely better than broadcast television quality. Audio sounds about the same as standard cable presentation—clear dialogue, no bass response, no subtitles. Yawn. If Bravo plans on making a stab at DVD releases of Top Chef, they'd best up the ante in future seasons and record them in high definition.
Extras are reasonable, but not amazing. We get some extended footage in the way of Stew Room clips (the place they leave the contestants while the judges decide who gets the boot), which will appeal to the more schadenfreude of fans. Extended interviews are also included, as well as some video of cooking demonstrations. A demo for the PC Top Chef video game is included (which I wouldn't install on my computer if you paid me) and a Quickfire Recipe Booket gets tossed in for good measure. The latter is little more than a loosely-disguised advertising onslaught for the extensive brand proliferation of the Top Chef name. The sixteen-page booklet contains but a mere four recipes, but is packed to the brim with advertisements for Top Chef branded merchandise, like (deep breath) wine, flower arrangements, video game, cookbook, board game, cutlery, and Top Chef itself. I actually need a shower now. I feel dirty even reading that list off.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see the show on DVD. It is a big hit in this Judge's house, especially with his wife. But why start with Season Five? With no word from Bravo if any of the previous iterations will ever make it to the format, I'm having Law and Order-related attacks here. That show got all non-chronological with their DVD release, and it is not a very convenient method of delivery for fans.
Having soiled my soul by reading off all the marketing mania now associated with the Top Chef moniker, Bravo has clearly discovered how much money is to be made with the franchise. One gets the sneaking suspicion that this DVD release, mediocre transfer and all, is a bit of a cash grab. Very unfortunate if true.
Fans of Top Chef will be happy to see the series now available on DVD, provided that they make good on the unspoken promise to get the rest of the seasons released. Once you start something, you better finish it, Bravo.
If you have to watch reality television, Top Chef is the most palatable. Not guilty.
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