As I mentioned last time, this whole project pretty much started with a very short-lived series called Kitchen Confidential, Based on the tell-all memoir by chef and travel expert Anthony Bourdain. It seemed like a can’t miss proposition: turning Bourdain’s book, which featured plenty of disturbing details of the nasty side of the restaurant business in vivid prose, into a half hour sitcom which would wring endless comedy from its steamy source. Unfortuately, it didn’t pan out that way; critical opinion was mixed and the show earned very low ratings, eventually being preempted by the MLB playoffs before being pulled entirely. So the question now becomes, what went wrong here? To use the obligatory food analogies, was the show all presentation, no flavor? Insert other culinary reference here?
The show seemed to have a strong enough pedigree: its creator, David Hemingson, scored a hit adapting another book, Sex and the City, for HBO, and it boasted a strong cast who had been on other successful shows in the past. Its star, Bradley Cooper (in the Bourdain surrogate, instead called Jack Bourdain), had a recurring role on Alias and would later appear in the hit film Wedding Crashers. It also boasted turns from Nicholas Brendon (Xander on Buffy), John Cho (of Harold and Kumar fame), John Francis Daley (Sam on Freaks and Geeks), and even a recurring role from Frank Langella as the suave Italian restaurant owner. It seemed like the stars aligned to give FOX yet another hit comedy series to add to their growing list. But instead, it became yet another entry in an equally expanding lineup of failures which has become something of a running joke at the network’s expense.
The plot goes something like this. Jack Bourdain, a former hard drinkin’, drug takin’ bad boy chef, is now trying to get clean after losing yet another cooking gig. It seems like things aren’t gonna be easy on Bourdain’s road to recovery, that is until he gets hired as head chef at a new upscale restaurant owned by Pino (Langella), and is required to put together a kitchen team to help him run his kitchen. Predictably, he puts together a motley crew indeed, bringing in fellow bad boy sous chef Stephen (Owain Yeoman, Lysander in Troy), longtime friend and seafood specialist Teddy (Cho), goofball dessert guy Seth (Brendon), and rookie chef/punching bag Jim (Daley). Also in the mix is Pino’s daughter Mimi (Bonnie Somerville, from The O.C.), head waitress, cute hostess Tanya (Jamie King), very homosexual waiter Cameron (Sam Pancake), and a whole slew of other minor characters to up the comedy quotient. Needless to say, such a dysfunctional group produces some wacky comedy situations that, predictably, will still end up making great food and putting Bourdain on the map.
It’s a pretty straightforward sitcom premise, but one that could, theoretically, have a fair amount of comedy mileage. Sometimes the show manages to deliver on that comedy, with some ridiculous bits that manage to be pretty funny. Other times, however, the show manages to be so zany that none of it really works. In fact, part of Kitchen Confidential’s main problem is that it’s too zany, and not enough like its source material. Where the book itself has plenty of amusing and disturbing bits from Bourdain’s time in high end restaurant kitchens, the show really doesn’t have much of that, but instead focuses on its characters screwing up, then somehow coming together to save the kitchen week after week.
Most of the characters get funny things to do, even if none of them really get developed past their initial sitcom types. Daley has some of the funniest bits, but his character pretty much stays as “starry-eyed new kid who gets tortured by the more experienced pros” the whole time. Maybe if the show were on for more seasons, it could’ve fleshed stuff out a bit more. As it is though, it really doesn’t even attempt that. Everything’s back to normal at the end of each episode, all conflicts are resolved, and all adversaries defeated. It’s tactic that a lot of sitcoms use, as if they’re afraid they could be cancelled at any time. Unfortunately for Kitchen Confidential, that ended up being all too true.
So how bad is it? Well, in truth, it’s not that bad. At least not enough to warrant such an abrupt end and painfully short run. In fact, some of the best bits happened in the episodes that never saw the light of day until their release on DVD, including a funny episode in which the restaurant gets an order of live rabbits, and no one, not even the so-called “sociopath” Stephen, can gather up the cojones necessary to kill them in order to prepare for the night’s dinner. Several characters have a one-on-one with a representative of the cuddly bunnies, and can’t follow through on the dirty business of finishing them off. Each episode has a few funny bits, but they’re unfortunately intermixed with unfunny stuff, or stuff that could’ve been funny had it been dialed back a few notches. Some jokes get stretched past the funny point and into obnoxious territory, and some just fall flat entirely.
Another problem I found is the sexual chemistry between the characters never really worked. It seems like there’s supposed to be some sexual tension between Jack and Mimi, but it never really amounts to anything, and Jack’s relationship with his schoolmate and female counterpart Becky (the very attractive Erinn Hayes) is a lot more interesting. Mimi in general comes off as more annoying than endearing, kind of like Elliot on Scrubs, but with less funny moments. Similarly, Jim and Tanya start a relationship near the end of the series, much to the dismay of Seth, who has the hots for her. While Seth’s attempts to woo Tanya while she resists create some funny moments, her relationship with Jim has very little buildup, even if I’d rather see her with him than Seth.
The show definitely has a slick and polished look, but it amounts, despite the funny gag here and there, to be mostly style, little substance.
So, should it be back on the air? I’d say yes, if only to air the rest of its season. The first episodes do well to set up the general outline of the series, but most of the funniest bits never saw the light of day until released in a no-frills DVD package a little while later. If the show had drawn more from its source material and tried a little more characterization, it may have grown into a more worthwhile sitcom treat.
Luckily for the cast, they all have a little something to keep their legacies intact. Cooper would go on to star in a scrappy little comedy called The Hangover that managed to be one of this summer’s top grossing films. Daley still has his cult status from Freaks and Geeks, as does Brendon for Buffy. John Cho, while he probably will never be able to escape from his status as Harold, also had a role in a hit called Star Trek. Even Frank Langella (who, I’ve decided, is very dashing for an older man) won some acclaim for doing some stuff recently, I don’t really know what, he played some president or something.
If you’re interested in watching it for yourself, the whole season can be viewed on Hulu here: http://www.hulu.com/kitchen-confidential
Stay tuned next time when I review the doomed animated comedy Clone High! Or whatever the internet equivalent is for “tuned.”