Reality television is a fickle mistress.
By the time networks figure out what’s hot in any reality genre, often they’re chasing a trend that is already on the wane.
That may or may not be the case for beleaguered NBC, which on Wednesday served up its new contender in the smoking-hot arena of competitive cooking — “The Chopping Block."
It’s a reality field already dominated by Fox, Bravo and the Food Network. And the new show? It features a familiar theme: foul-mouthed British chef leads hapless Americans to culinary nirvana. Many dishes broken along the way.
On “Chopping Block,” eight couples divvied up into two teams have less than a week to turn two rundown storefronts into chic New York eateries. The grand prize is $250,000.
History may record that in the depths of economic recession, America turned to cooking with a vengeance.
But the ring is crowded, including “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef America” and Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” the latter of which has consistently ranked number one in the ratings since its debut on Fox in 2005.
Audiences seem to have a big appetite for competitive cooking. The fifth season premiere of “Hell’s Kitchen” has performed strongly so far, if not as well as last year. Last week the show got a 6 rating /9 share, behind CSI on CBS.
“Top Chef” also pulls in record number of viewers over on Bravo. The debut of its fifth-season premiere in November drew a record 2.7 million viewers — 19 percent more than viewed its fourth season debut.
Even more importantly, both shows draw a major share of the 18-to-49-year-old audience, hitting advertisers right in their sweet spot.
How different is “Chopping Block”? Reviewers mostly are underwhelmed. Newsday called it "a senseless mash-up" of "Hell’s Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares."
The Hollywood Reporter was even less kind: "It simply isn’t possible for this reality series to be more aptly titled than ‘The Chopping Block,’ given its similarities to Fox’s long-running ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and pretty much every other restaurant/food competition show there’s ever been,” the trade wrote. “This new effort from NBC is literally a chop off the old block."
Viewers encounter “Chopping Block” star Chef Marco Pierre White pacing before 16 contestants of different ages, races and sizes slouched at attention. In a voiceover, waitress-office manager and now TV hopeful Shari Della Ventura intones that White is “like a god” — or in her Millbury, Massachusetts, vernacular “like a gawd.”
White is a Michelin-star winning mentor to superstar chef and all-around hot-head Ramsay. But unlike Ramsay, his rumpled black suit, strategically uncombed hair and Leeds accent invoke a brooding Byronic darkness.
So when will competitive cooking shows be cooked? The reality TV highway is littered with casualties from the dating shows that jumped on “The Bachelor” bandwagon. “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance” is a distant memory.
Like all hot reality genres, it seems destined to be a trend that will run its course once our TVs are oversaturated with cheesy imitators.
But there’s no end in sight for the genre. Bravo has ordered eight episodes of a tween-to-teen spinoff called “Top Chef Junior.” A new season of “The Next Food Network Star” will debut June 7 on the Food Network.
And TV cooking mainstay Emeril Lagasse’s “Emeril Green” is on Discovery’s Planet Green channel, while A&E is in production on “Rocco to the Rescue!” starring New York celebri-chef Rocco DiSpirito, who’s already starred in a couple of reality shows — including “Dancing With the Stars.”
"In some ways the sober, earnest tone of ‘The Chopping Block’ is better suited to these recessionary times," writes Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times.
"Not everyone dreams of opening a fusion bistro or perfecting a vol-au-vent, but many feel that they had a tougher time learning their trade than younger, mollycoddled and overly entitled upstarts. And for those, ‘The Chopping Block’ cuts just right."