Jen Krueger: Cream Rising to the Top
I’ve been a fan of Top Chef for years, and this season has me particularly hooked. I like the New Orleans setting, the accompanying season of Last Chance Kitchen has been stellar, and I’ve found a few of the challenges to be some of the best the show has ever done, mostly because they manage to be surprising despite the show being in its eleventh season. But the biggest surprise to me about this season of Top Chef has nothing to do with the content of the show; it’s the sheer fact that I’m watching it.
Frustrations with my cable provider reached a breaking point last summer when I was overcharged by more than a hundred dollars in a single bill, and since most of the shows my roommate and I watch regularly are available through the combination of iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu Plus, we decided to call it quits with cable. Saving money was the obvious perk, but I was also more than happy to cut down on extraneous TV watching borne out of getting sucked into a show coming on after something I’d intended to watch, or worse yet, the time-wasting passive intake of crap I’m not even interested in but end up watching just because the TV is on.
On the other hand, while almost all of the scripted programming I enjoy is available through multiple outlets besides broadcast TV, most of the reality shows I liked seemed to be available only through iTunes, if anywhere at all. I’d always found the idea of buying episodes of reality shows silly since I don’t see any rewatch value in them, competition shows for the obvious reason that knowing the winner and loser of an episode takes away most of the point of watching it, and documentary-style shows because so many of the ones I watched tend to be of little to no substance. Even at just $1.99 a pop, I couldn’t imagine myself paying for them, so I figured they’d simply drop out of my viewing rotation altogether and was kind of bummed out at the thought.
Then I started tallying up the reality TV I’d been regularly watching. One iteration of Storage Wars, two shows about persnickety interior designer Jeff Lewis, three MTV shows about teenagers having kids, four sets of Real Housewives, and five food competition shows later, I wasn’t close to done but was sufficiently embarrassed at the volume of reality TV I’d been consuming. Ugh, I can totally live without this stuff, I thought. And I’ll save hours each week by not watching garbage!
But lumping together all reality TV as garbage isn’t really fair, is it? The first reality show I remember ever getting hooked on was Project Runway, which was innovative and entertaining while showcasing genuinely unique talents in an industry I knew little about (at least in the first few seasons of the show). Before morphing into a sensationalized and formulaic show on Fox, Kitchen Nightmares was Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares on Channel 4 in the U.K. and documented sincere attempts on the host’s part to save restaurants in much more detail, meaning insight on everything from how to cook specific dishes to how to best run meal service to how to create a local customer base were all offered on camera by Gordon Ramsay. And though it was short-lived, Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover showed me more about the real local cultures of both cities I know well and cities I’ve never been to than I think I could’ve gleaned through hours of my own research and experiences.
I realized the black-and-white view I’d taken on reality shows in a cable-less household was entirely and arbitrarily self-imposed. I decided that by culling the quality reality wheat from the trashy reality chaff, I could still get my competition and documentary-style fixes without losing hours to the empty albeit entertaining morass that previously clogged my DVR. Last but not least in sealing the deal, I tallied the costs of an iTunes season pass for the few gems like Top Chef that I decided were worth keeping up with and found it comes to less than the cost of two months of cable. With a bargain like that, it suddenly seemed silly not to buy the handful of reality shows I like most. And after all, in any season of Top Chef, the Restaurant Wars episode alone is always good for at least $1.99 worth of entertainment.
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY: Mike Gold