On "Kitchen Nightmares," his second series for Fox -- based, like "Hell's Kitchen," on a British original -- celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay takes ailing restaurants and, in a week's time turns them into potentially viable operations. It is loud and manipulative and ugly to behold, but it isn't dull.
Somewhere between a mediator and a drill sergeant, Ramsay comes with his impatient tough love to tear down and to rebuild. He is something to reckon with -- not just successful and famous but physically imposing and given to profanity. (I like to imagine he is saying something like "unicorn" or "rainbow" when the bleeps sound.)
Despite notoriously being a man with a temper, the full Ramsay is far more rounded than the figure he cuts for the American market, where his sharp edges, short fuse and tactlessness are sold as the main course. Appearing alongside other celebrities on British talk shows or hosting his own "The F-Word" (seen here on BBC America), in which he functions as a kind of extreme Martha Stewart, he can be quite sweet and even humble in his compulsively competitive way.
As was "Hell's Kitchen," however, the local version of "Kitchen Nightmares" has been Fox-ified to a fare-thee-well. When it comes to reality television, the American palate is apparently so jaded, its sensibilities so worn, that we need our matter not only predigested but slathered with ketchup and shoved straight down our throats. Whereas the British "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" is fundamentally a food show -- it has interesting things to show you about how a restaurant runs and a kitchen works, the wonders of local markets and what you can make from them if you're Gordon Ramsay or willing to follow his instructions -- the Fox edition emphasizes mishap, argument and emotional breakdown almost to the exclusion of cuisine.
"It will be intense," we're told at the start of every show. "It will be emotional. And it will be shocking." And yet, although the filth we encounter backstage at these places is obviously filthy, the rotten food tangibly rotten, the broken equipment inarguably broken and the hapless staff evidently inept (as professionals and sometimes as people), the clattering way in which this is all presented -- the audiovisual mess of special effects, sound effects, rapid edits, zooms and swoops and stabs and stings that has somehow come to stand for "reality" -- makes the enterprise seem suspect. (The British series looks like cinéma vérité by comparison.) Even Ramsay appears to be playing a character, albeit one based on himself.
It also plays to our preference for unequivocal victories and unambiguously happy endings. Feel-good moments are created: Ramsay installs a new kitchen in one restaurant, remodels the dining room in another. He brings in a French maitre d' to instruct a befuddled owner in how to be a host and personally takes him into a boxing ring to teach him how to be "a man." He unites families, creates new "traditions."
Just as Ramsay would say that the final responsibility for the state of the kitchen lies not with the cooks but the owners, so the aesthetic excesses of the American "Kitchen Nightmares" -- noisy and dissonant in a way he'd never allow his food to be -- must be laid at his feet. (Size 15, I happen to know.) But perhaps he's just doing what he tells his failing restaurateurs: identify the market and serve it what it likes.
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14 L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with advisory for coarse language)