It takes awhile for it to dawn on you that you've been had. All those hours spent watching perky people take you through the steps of how to make the perfect pulled-pork supper, or big-game snack buffet, or Christmas cookies to share with your neighbors were all in vain: You haven't cooked or baked a goddamn thing from any of these shows. That's because the Food Network isn't really about teaching us anything; it's about the personalities on the network itself.
They deal in archetypes: the Italian hottie with scoopable boobs, the Southern Belle who finds "bad" foods naughty, the rugged Western wife of a cattle castrator, Sammy Hagar and his exxxtreme kitchen, the black couple who loves food and family, and the Not-Quite-Ready-For-PBS cooking show hosts like Alton Brown and Bobby Flay. This universalism led to the network's rapid rise on basic cable after its debut 20 years ago. It's also the reason you see it on TV sets all over the city, from your gym to Wells Fargo. It's Foodsak: Muzak for your eyes.
But the Food Network is at a crossroads. Its ratings in 2013 were already sagging when it decided to dump Paula Deen, further sending its numbers downward. Journalist Allen Salkin published the book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, chronicling the rise of the age of celebrity chefs and the channel. He told food site The Braiser that the network was a "massive cultural force," but he now sees it as being stuck in a rut. To wit, its show The Next Food Network Star, which crowned as its last winner a predictably safe Kentucky girl named Darmaris Phillips. "The problem is," says Salkin, "the network itself doesn't even know what a Food Network Star is anymore." The show that Phillips got produced as a prize for winning is relegated to early Saturday mornings, as it probably should be. It's dull.
There really haven't been any breakaway stars generated by the competition since second-season winner Guy Fieri. Ugh, where to start with this guy. His show Guy's Big Bite, where he cooks in his kitchen for the camera, is actually palatable to sit through, but every time I see him, Motley Crue's "Kickstart My Heart" cues up in my brain and I picture him devil-hornin' it on the roof of a Camaro going 110 mph. Ah, if only he was heading for a low freeway overpass. He's got nothing on the other guy (pun intended) who won his season, the cloyingly disingenuous "Sandwich King" Jeff Mauro, who was that dude in high school who was trying as hard as possible to win "Boldest." For some reason the Food Network has added him to its chat-show The Kitchen, where he's juxtaposed against people like the stoic Geoffrey Zakarian and Billy Joel's ex, Katie Lee. He's annoying as hell on his own; he doesn't need contrast to emphasize this point.
This whole thing reminds me of another seminal basic cable channel, MTV. Back when it used to play music videos and, you know, actually be about music, it was dragged kicking and screaming out of honky town and into the urban market. No one was more surprised than execs were that Yo! MTV Raps became their highest-rated show. I'm not saying the Food Network should give Lil Wayne his own cooking show (Sizzurp!) but don't be scared to insert a new archetype.
This season of The Next Food Network Star starts June 1, and from the teaser it looks like the Usual Gang of Idiots, to steal a line from Mad magazine. It's a mixture of all the same people we've seen before: The Cowboy, The Health Nut, The Edgy Broad, The Nerdy Asian Dork, The Dingbat, The Adonis, plus the wild cards, like The One Who Was Near Death and Food Saved His/Her Life, and the woman who will probably win, The Motherly Woman Who Makes International Cuisine Look Easy. Actually that is the one thing that the network really could use; its idea of foreign food is always Italian or Mexican. Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Peruvian... hell, even German foods are all rarely seen.
How about a Duck Dynasty-style reality show about a family in the food business? Say a winery or an organic farm? Or find the biggest hits on YouTube and spotlight them each week. Who doesn't want to see the Vegan Black Metal Chef show Giada how to make pad thai? No one, that's who.