Posted by: wolferiver | December 21, 2008

Brilliant But Canceled

I got so caught up in a minor domestic crisis this weekend that I nearly forgot that I had recently purchased the short lived TV sitcom Kitchen Confidential.  I finally sat down to watch it late in the evening last night.

The series was based on a best-selling book of the same name written by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who has since gone on to become a TV personality and fixture on basic cable’s travel channel.  I was one of the twenty or so people that watched the show in its initial run, and my recollection of it was that it was an entertaining show, and one that made my “must see TV” list that fall. 

Bourdain himself is an entertaining writer, and the producers of the sitcom seem to have preserved the flavor of his writings — a feat that is pretty rare on television, and even rarer on sitcoms.  The show is set in a high end New York restaurant, and the mise-en-scene seems entirely authentic to my admittedly inexperienced eyes. 

The show was every bit as good as I remembered it being, and it was a treat to see the additional 5 or 6 unaired episodes.  This was one of those shows with smart writing, and where every character, even the small ones, were perfect gems.  The writing was good, with both inventive plots, and intelligent dialog.  Most of all, what really shined in this show was the cast, all of whom seemed to fully understand their characters, and even the minor characters are played with zest, brio, and a surprising subtly. 

Sadly, this show aired on Fox, a network notorious for axing shows without giving them any time to bloom.  (This is a constant in all television, but for some reason, Fox is worse than the rest.)  Fox, which is known in particular for its Lowest Common Denominator reality show programming, has also hatched several extraordinary and potentially ground breaking “Brilliant But Canceled” shows.  It is true that Fox was extraordinarily patient with another of its sitcoms from that time, Arrested Development, which was critically acclaimed yet it never quite found an audience during its three season run.  Even so, that was the singular example of that network being patient with many of its interesting scripted shows.

One of the things that separates the a good show from a great one is that a great one not only engages the viewer, but changes them, even if only in some small way.  And how does a viewer know that this has happened?  You know it when you find yourself thinking about these characters and their stories long after the show is over.  This sort of experience on television is rarer than it is with movies, which makes it an astonishing and pleasant surprise to discover, especially on network television. 

In this respect Kitchen Confidential was a much better show than Arrested Development.   The latter was smart and funny, but in a knowing kind of way, which kept the audience at a distance, laughing at the characters rather than with them.  I never found it nearly as engaging, and watched it only sporadically when I had nothing better to do.   It was the kind of show that sophisticated cynics like because it confirms for them that all humanity is made up of dimwitted bumblers, and justifies living at a distance from it all.  Kitchen Confidential however has at its core a humanism, with characters that are flawed but often rising above themselves.  Perhaps it’s all in whatever core beliefs viewers bring to the table, but Kitchen Confidential remains in my mind as a truly outstanding comedy series and one that I will re-watch, making it worth having in my personal DVD library.

What’s sad is that the smart people, the sophisticated ones, and the ones who would’ve “got” this show, are also the ones who’ve long ago given up on television, saying that there’s only crap on.  I guess they have no less a herd mentality than the people who are happy to watch simple-minded shows such as According to Jim, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader, or the endless iterations of Law and Order.  So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There are less and less smart shows, more and more dumb ones.  Now, with the latest announcement from NBC that they are reducing their prime time shows to only 10 hours a week, the television landscape is becoming quite bleak.

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