Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Empty Calorie Entertainment: "Sweet Genius"

Being at home with an infant, I watch a lot of TV. In this blog series, I examine some of my favorite televisual guilty pleasures and answer the question, "So, why do I like this crap?"

"Sweet Genius" on Food Network

I can spend entire days watching TV food shows and consume only a wee fraction of the airtime devoted to this subject. I have to admit, this rampant habit of fetishizing a basic human need is rather perverse. I know this. But I don't get out much and foodie porn keep me entertained. I especially enjoy travel logs like "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" and instructional shows like "Lidia's Italy". These programs never bore me.

Then there are the competition shows, with which I have a more tempestuous love/hate relationship. It seems like it all started with the Japanese version of "Iron Chef". I can groove on "IC" and its American spin-off because it's fun watching cooks get creative with a wacky parameter, like making five courses that incorporate elk. Perhaps more importantly, I don't feel the urge to murder their generally good-natured panel of judges (which usually includes one very quiet celebrity who only wants to be taken seriously). On other shows, like "Chopped" and even the dangerously addictive "Top Chef", some of these self-important mofos have gotten way out of control. Attention, Celebrity Foodie Judges - While I respect your dedication to professional integrity, please remember that you are evaluating a luxury item. Your indignant response to less-than-stellar gourmet cuisine makes me want to tenderize your face.

Given that, I guess it's pretty weird that I should love "Sweet Genius", Food Network's latest contribution to the pastry competition genre. Host Ron Ben-Israel is the ultimate Celebrity Foodie Asshole, to the point of being absurd. But it's that quality that makes his show exceptional. It's as if the producers wondered how far they could go with the torture-the-contestant paradigm and then took the concept a few steps further. For instance,

The host is an absolute creep. Just look at this guy -

As Dan said, "He definitely has someone locked in a basement." He's even spookier when he smiles, but that doesn't happen often. Talk about self-important. According to this premise, Ben-Israel is the sole arbiter of pastry proficiency. The set is his torture lab, where four chefs compete in three elimination rounds for the Sweet Genius title and $10,000. Any reasonable viewer has to wonder, "Who the hell is this guy and why does his opinion matter so much?" Apparently he is an industry icon, at least according to his awe-struck contestants. I suspect many of them were drawn in by his good name, only to find themselves immersed in a bizarre and terrifying culinary labyrinth (more about that later).

Ben-Israel is certainly a sadist, which doesn't make him different from any other reality competition judge. He's just more obvious about it, and I appreciate that. Unlike, say, "America's Next Top Model" host Tyra Banks, he doesn't pretend to give a shit what anyone else thinks. There's no panel of shills, just him. So unlike those catty bitches from "Chopped", he does not partake in hushed-tone confabs at the judges' table as the poor chefs slave over their courses. Instead, he heckles his contestants as they work. "Show me everything you know about chocolate," he bellows, occasionally interjecting an inscrutable, "Genius!" It's hard to not laugh, and yet you know the fear in the competitors' eyes is very real.

Wacky Parameters GALORE The competition is divided into three rounds - frozen, baked and chocolate. Each round begins with the introduction of a key ingredient and an object of inspiration, which are rolled out on a conveyor belt and described by a Euro-accented robot lady. Each dessert plate must incorporate the ingredient and somehow reflect the inspiration. The former tends to be either low-brow (i.e. candy corn) or ill-suited to dessert (cactus). The latter is just random (a disco ball, a unicorn). And then, halfway into the round, Ben-Israel introduces another weird ingredient, like seaweed or Pop Rocks. The chefs must then incorporate that into whatever they're already concocting. BOING! It's a pretty evil experiment, but it does inspire some creative brilliance. And beware to those who dare to bitch or whine - as Ben-Israel loves to say, "A Sweet Genius can adjust to any situation," or, more ominously, "You were warned."

The White Knuckliest Judges Table Ever The judge's table is the best part of any competition show.  You get to see the contestants' finished products and witness the evaluation, which is the next best thing to tasting it yourself. In keeping with the general ridiculousness that makes "Sweet Genius" so special, Ben-Israel's minimalist, one word sentence laden, twisty-turny evaluations really do put me on edge. These moments often remind me of that famous "What do you mean I'm funny?" scene from Goodfellas. No matter how well it begins, you're never quite sure how this nutjob is going to feel in the end.

All nuttiness aside, "Sweet Genius" is worth watching for the chefs' inventive and often beautiful creations. My favorite was a sand-inspired chocolate competition in which the contestants had to use marrow bones and coffee beans. One woman created a beach scene with coffee, chocolate and marrow flavored sands. She painted the marrow bone with chocolate to make it look like a piece of driftwood. It really was lovely. Even Ben-Israel referred to her presentation as "ingenious". That made her cry, which was a bit sad and Stockholm Syndrome-y, and I had to wonder if her gushing, "I have so much respect for you!" was the real reason she won. After all, the other guy's Coney Island themed bone marrow hot dogs were pretty clever, too.

That was the rare competition when Ben-Israel acknowledged genius on both sides ("...but there can only be  one.") Unlike most competition shows, the winner is revealed when the last loser is announced. Ben-Israel  says, "So-and-so, you were no Sweet Genius," and you have to sit through that chef's final humiliation before you get to see the other guy exhale and smile. I'm waiting for the episode when Ben-Israel flunks the entire class and no one gets the ten grand. Just because that never happens on any other show doesn't mean that it can't happen here.

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