« blogademy | Main | Singularly moronic »

Everything I need to know I learn from TV

There is no one--dead, alive, or as of yet unimagined--that does not have something to do with Rimbaldi.

I'm sure that people with their fingers on the pulse of pop culture already know this, but it's become increasingly clear that David Kelley's next lawyer series will star James Spader. The Practice ended tonight in classic Ally McBeal fashion, and far too much script is being devoted to characters that otherwise would only last two more weeks, for this not to be the case. And the edges on Spader's character are being sanded down very quickly.

Again, I'm sure there are many who know more than I about this, but I spent some time this weekend with Food Network's new Iron Chef America, and I wonder they'll actually go serial with it. Plusses? No William Shatner, no Las Vegas, and a commentator (Alton Brown) who seems genuinely interested in commentating rather than trying to be as kitschy as the voiceovers for the original. Fox's short-lived version was almost unwatchable. Minuses: I've only seen the first two of four so far (I'll catch the encores this week), and in each, I was able to identify ingredients (daikon radish, benito broth) before the commentators. For those of us who watch the original, these are not "mysterious Asian" ingredients--they're staples of Kitchen Stadium. I hope that they treat this not as a one-off special event (also a drawback of the FOX series), but as a regular series, one that introduces people to some of the "culinary diversity" of the country.

Also, I understand why it's important for them to have the American chefs win, but I get the impression that Sakai and Morimoto already know that this is the case. I would have thought, after years in this country, that Morimoto at least would have come a little closer to winning over American palates than he did. Doing it as a series, inviting the judges to actually be critical on occasion, inviting chefs who aren't already celebrities, getting rid of the stupid 5-dish rule, and using ingredients that aren't "special!!!" would go a long way towards making the shows seem a little more authentic. And it would give Food Network (not to mention US chefs) a way to tap into a pretty loyal audience. It's cool to watch "battles of the masters," but it's cool in a different way to be able to make a reservation at a restaurant bc you've seen the chef in action.

Update: Dana Stevens has a review that is good in places, but perhaps a little obvious in others:

I can't weigh in on what made Iron Chef so popular in Japan, but its success as an American import has everything to do with language and with the mysterious gulf that separates one culture from another. Sadly, everything that was charming, exciting, and moving about the original show has been, quite literally, lost in translation.

I guess that last bit was too good to pass up on. But I suppose I'd disagree that its only success was on account of that "mysterious gulf." Part of the success has to do with taking an everyday activity and making it larger than life--for me, that's the universal appeal of the show. Sure, the Japanity of it is cool, too, but I'm also interested in the food. I'm fascinated by the idea of extemporized menus, different styles and approaches, and having a chance to actually watch them work. Most cooking shows are talk show formatted, and I find them as claustrophobic as Stevens does. At the same time, I think that there is some appeal to the show that might be translatable--I'll never have a chance to visit the restaurants I see on Iron Chef, but if Food Network really threw genuine effort behind ICA, it'd be a boon for the chefs who work a level or two below people like Flay and Puck.

To date, though, both attempts at Americanizing IC have reminded me of the first fight in Rocky IV, the one with Apollo Creed dancing with James Brown. It seems really Vegas to me, and that's not what made IC work. Odd ingredients (milk?!), theme shows (V-Day dessert battles), and opponents who really seemed to be invested in competing (think Kandagawa, e.g., or some of the competitors who were trying to rebuild their careers as chefs) make the show more than just an Event. I'm not quite cynical enough to believe that it was all sham--and until there's a version of ICA that seems genuine, I don't think it'll even come close to the original. But I'm still hoping...


The Kelley team has been puffing up Spader's character for several weeks, and although I don't have any definitive sources confirming the suspicion I share with you about his role in the next law show, The Practice has been a disappointment this season: oodles of character development stacked with exit opportunity after exit opportunity for the old-timers. When was the last time Eugene handled a case? On the bright side, the long, long (did I mention _long_?) soliloquies where Spader talks to the camera give us plenty of time to daydream about the program's golden years with the lineup of Bobby, Helen, Rebecca, Lindsay...head in the duffle, Richard Fish. Those episodes were far more riveting than watching Spader almost get lusty with another lawyer or intern (did enjoy his take on hockey, though). So maybe they're going to do something different: keep The Practice The Practice and roll the new firm--Shatner and Co.--into the spotlight. Seems like that's already happening.

Yeah, I feel kind of bad for the leftovers--maybe the plan all along was to set up a spin-off, but in a lot of ways, it was like watching a team you like rebuilding the roster. Personally, I probably wouldn't be watching if it weren't for the Alias lead-in (and the fact that I can catch West Coast broadcasts of the Sopranos and Deadwood).

I'm not sure that I like the move towards McBealville, though, and the latest episode felt a lot like that. Earlier on, Spader was more of an anti-hero, moreso than any other character from Kelley that I can recall. The nasty that he pulled out in scenes with Jill Clayburgh and Betty White was for me the highlight of this season. The dynamic that his character established with the Practice regulars worked for me (some of the Jimmy taunts made me laugh out loud), but I'm not sure about him stepping in as the white knight in the sharky law firm.

We'll see, I guess. They better keep that time slot, though, or the spin-off will probably be a one-season wonder (cf. the ill-fated Practice switch to Friday nights)...