The new entertainment formula for Top Chef Bravo is excruciating for both viewers and chef-testants alike - Top Chef meets American Idol in Hell's Kitchen and launches Survivor's Redemption Island.
Episode One, "Everything's Bigger in Texas," felt more like the cattle call auditions of American Idol than a cooking show. Although we only saw half the group complete, a whopping 29 chefs from around the country were lined up to vie for a spot in the "top 16."
Triumph was signaled with the prize of a Top Chef jacket. (Woo hoo! Buffs with sleeves.)
The earnestness with which so many passionate and accomplished chefs competed for it - and the despair when they lost - was almost too hard to watch. Not to mention dizzying. Faces. Names. Back stories. Who could keep up?
Episode Two, The Heat is On, pitted the remaining contestants against each other for a measly two Top Chef jackets.
Happily, this episode introduced our home-town favorites - Paul Qui of Uchiko and Andrew Curren of 24 Diner.
Qui coasted to an easy victory and fairly danced out the door with Top Chef jacket in hand.
Curren struggled. Curren flopped. No joy in Mudville. But wait! It's not over until it's over.
Curren gets to star in an online side-show, um, spin-off, er cook-off against any chef-testant who is eliminated - a web-only series called Last Chance Kitchen where the losers go for redemption.
Andrew triumphed in Last Chance Kitchen last night. But has he won?
Eyeballs stay tuned to Bravo online. Now he has to defeat every single eliminated chef to get back in the kitchen.
My verdict on the new format? It's a bit overwrought - imitative rather than innovative and almost crass in grubbing for advertising dollars.
Asking Texas cities to pay for "placement." Poor Houston, who would not pony up to be in the show is now reduced to buying 30 second spots. Driving die-hard fans to a web-exclusive robustly cluttered with more advertising banners.
We know that television is commercial. But to see this so transparently on display is disappointing.
Maybe their audience ratings fell. Maybe their advertisers cut the budgets. I'm not privy to the reasons the show is trying so hard this year. All I can think is that this is what happens when producers get bored. And it's not working for this die-hard Top Chef fan.
Skip the gimmicks. Stick with your knitting... er... cooking. Trust these hungry, talented chefs, trust your audience and bring on the damned food already!