“Top Chef Canada”: Season 1 Wrap

Spoilers ahead.

Since I wrote my less-than-flattering mid-point review of Top Chef Canada over a month ago, I am happy to say the series did improve with time.

The biggest turnaround for me was Head Judge Mark McEwan. It’s almost as if halfway through filming, producers reviewing the tapes realized that he was coming off as stoic and tense, and started prompting him with “Smile!” cue cards behind the camera. Though he’s still no Tom Collichio, McEwan definitely showed signs of loosening up towards the end, which bodes well for the future of the show. Host Thea Andrews was also okay, though her delivery and smirk continued to be reminiscent more of tabloid entertainment than reality programming.

Resident Judge Shereen Arazm, on the other hand, I still could have done without – she didn’t add anything for me, and I’m not convinced that the canon of Canadian talent could not have provided someone more articulate and less shrill. I’m not sure if she has been secured for next season, but I’m hoping for a replacement.

In terms of guest judges, I know Canada doesn’t have the same obsession with “celebrity chefs” as our neighbours to the south, but Top Chef Canada is a great platform to start celebrating our homegrown talent. Most of the judges were Food Network alumni (some of whom, like Rob Feenie and Gail Simmons, I did enjoy), but I’d like to see future episodes utilize more non-screen chefs.

The challenges were also more entertaining as the show went on. I really liked the street food challenge (the “fusion” aspect not so much), and was pleased that “restaurant wars” did not disappoint. I am also glad the final challenge was open-ended – I don’t think the cheftestants were given enough opportunities towards the end to really showcase their true cooking styles. Mack and I both agreed that we hope future challenges embrace regional cooking more – I acknowledge that this inaugural season chose to highlight ethnic cuisines as its representation of Canadiana, but so much more can and should be done with the breadth of produce and proteins offered by our vast country.

Though I realize that the costs associated with building the studio in Toronto must be recouped, I’m hoping that future seasons will film across the country in a manner similar to Top Chef (season 9 will likely be based in San Antonio). In addition to celebrating talent, the show is a wonderful chance to expose viewers to venues and restaurants across the country, and can go a long way to encourage inter-provincial culinary tourism.

Lastly – congrats to Dale! But I have to be honest; I was rooting for Connie not only because of her Alberta connection, but also because it is rare to see a female chef take the title. There’s always next year (they accepted applications back in June)! Looking forward to season two – go Canada!

“Top Chef Canada”: Not Quite There Yet

It’s always an exciting moment for Canada when we get our own version of an American reality television show. Isn’t it supposed to connote that we’ve made it into the big leagues, and that we too, in the Great White North, have our share of marketable talent too?

Some shows, like Canada’s Next Top Model, haven’t done so well, for a variety of reasons – lack of equivalent star power, poor production quality, less of a potential audience base to start with. But others, like So You Think You Can Dance Canada, have exceeded expectations. When it was announced last May that a Top Chef Canada was in the works though, I really had high hopes. Top Chef is one of my favourite programs – between the challenges, judges and cheftestant drama, I find I am drawn in, every time.

The casting seemed to deliberately draw the 16 contestants from nearly every province in Canada, likely an effort to snag viewers from across the country. Although I was disappointed no Edmonton-based chefs were chosen to compete, the two Calgary-based chefs would at least be representing Alberta (and having eaten at Connie DeSousa’s restaurant, Charcut, it would have been difficult not to root for her). Besides my home-province favourites, Dale MacKay appeared to be another strong contender, just based on his past experience and mentors.

To me then, the biggest question mark for the show’s success would boil down to the host and the judges. Without a doubt, Top Chef’s duo of Padma Lakshmi and Tom Collichio are a force to be reckoned with, and are a big part of why the show works. They are charismatic, come off (to me) as genuine, and the majority of their criticism is constructive. I recognize that editing has definitely helped them hone their television personas, but I was hoping the same magic would touch upon the Canadian equivalents.

Not so. Head judge Mark McEwan appears languid, unenthusiastic, and has barely cracked a smile  since the opening episode. But at least I can understand why he was chosen – he already had a relationship with Food Network. The other resident judge, Shereen Arazm, might have seen success in the restaurant industry, but hasn’t brought anything to the table; her comments on the show are usually along the lines of “yummy” and “bad”. Perhaps she has been getting the short end of the stick from the show’s editors, but based on her blog entries, I don’t think so. Host Thea Andrews seemed at first out of place, as if she should be hosting an entertainment news show instead, but in the last few weeks, has been growing on me.

I suppose my frustration with the judges also stems from the fact that some of the guest judges they’ve had seem to be a better fit for this type of program – for example, Susur Lee, one of Canada’s other premiere chefs, has a personality that translates on screen, unlike McEwan. Or Laura Calder, James Beard Award Winning host of French Food at Home, was great to watch in the last episode – articulate and candid, I almost wish she had been the premier guest judge, as she was overshadowed by the superstar power of Daniel Boulud.

In terms of production quality, I have to say it was quite unfortunate for Top Chef Canada to air immediately after Top Chef: All Stars. Although the kitchen fixtures and space look nearly identical to the American filming space, the challenges have been mostly lacklustre so far (open ended cheese and pork challenges? cooking with vodka?) Last week’s French challenge was the most entertaining to watch, because of its difficulty and the element of team work that it promoted. Moreover, in several of the quickfire challenges, not all of the dishes are shown – how else is the audience supposed to get to know the style and skill of the chefs? I realize there is still more than half the season to go, so I really hope that these aspects improve as the show progresses.

So, while Top Chef Canada isn’t quite the appointment television that its American counterpart is for me (yet), I’m optimistic that with the room to develop, the show can inch closer to the standard set by Top Chef.

Sherene has been conducting exit interviews with all of the Top Chef Canada contestants; read them here.

Appointment Television Mondays

Since House moved to Mondays, the day has become so stacked, network entertainment-wise, that it’s almost unfair. As a result, my Monday evenings have become a sedentary retreat, my downfall as someone who prefers her television “live”. As it’s been a while since I’ve written about any of my big four shows (Prison Break is on hiatus – in its last season, sob – until April 17), I felt it was time to put down some thoughts:

  • 24 – I am loving the resurrection of Tony “Soul Patch” Almeida – it’s always better when Jack has his trustworthy partner in crime behind him! I do wish Chloe had more to do (I thought finally going rogue would mean we’d get to see her as a true field agent, but alas, she’s still hidden behind a computer screen), but at least she’s away from the confines of the CTU bunker. I also love the Renee Walker character – it’s inevitable she will move to the dark side under Jack’s tutelage, but she’s got some fight in her. Now that the Dubaku storyline has wrapped, I just hope the second part of the season is as gripping as the first.
  • House – It’s strange that after five seasons of the same almost sitc0m-like template (patient with mystery illness miraculously cured by the end of the 42 minutes), audiences are still tuning in. It is nice to see some of the supporting characters getting their own storylines finally, including Cuddy’s adoption (something that didn’t involve House at all) and also increasing the Cuddy-Wilson interaction.
  • The City – I had high expectations for this show, mostly because it was taking place in New York, but I didn’t think Whitney could carry a series all on her own. It turns out she can, but not without making it seem like she is selling herself short. More than anything, I can’t wait for the return of The Hills (Lauren and Heidi friends again?! Say it ain’t so!), and continuing to watch clever spoofs of The City in Barack Obama’s The District.

“The Hills!” “The Hills!”

My not-so-guilty pleasure returns August 18. Though a part of me knows not to hold any stock to the season trailer (as it has led to disappointments in the past), I can’t help but get excited and look forward to the drama that is to come (can Lauren trust Stephanie Pratt? Will Lo push Audrina and Lauren apart?).

I realize that most of my readers cannot understand the appeal of such shallow, faux reality. But Time magazine’s James Poniewozik recently laid out, in irresistible prose, exactly why The Hills appeals to an audience beyond teenage girls.

“…if you can get past the idea that fakeness is a bad thing–use a fancier term, like artifice, if that helps you–then The Hills is one of the most magnificent pieces of fakery on television, a jewel-like celebration of superficiality.

“The surfaces are precisely what make The Hills entrancing: it is possibly the best-looking series on television. It doesn’t just look better than life. It looks better than TV. Where most reality shows use garish close-ups to show hot emotions, The Hills uses middle- and long-range shots in wide-screen, giving it a cooler feel and framing the subjects like art photography. It’s full of liquid L.A. sun, in love with the way light plays on surfaces–car bodies, plate glass, glossed lips.”

I’ve written about how Laguna Beach initially sucked me in with its cinematography and sound track, and The Hills, now in its fourth season, is better than ever in terms of production values. And if people can learn how to be chosen for reality television, Lauren, Audrina, Whitney and Heidi could teach such a class with their eyes closed.

I will be watching.

Film: “High School Musical 2”

The long-awaited sequel to High School Musical premiered on Friday to tweens armed with VCRs, parents enjoying the wave of non-threatening, family-friendly entertainment, fans of Zac Efron (Dickson), and those curious to see if the film could possibly live up to the expectation and hype (me). It failed to deliver.

Despite being nearly two hours long (thus having ample time to redeem itself and/or improve along the way), the movie played too much like a poor excuse to capitalize on success. There were one or two catchy songs, but for the most part, the numbers were overdone and melodramatic (see Efron’s solo on the putting green), appearing unnecessary and draining whatever earnestness was gained through the acting. The vocals were also terrible, overly synthesized to the point where some of the singers sounded identical. I’m being harsh – harsher because of the grand expectations created in the wake of the original, but ultimately, I was disappointed that this was the final product. I doubt I will shell out cash to watch the third installment in the theatres.

On another note, I figured the late August release date was timed to coincide with a movie that tracked the summer holidays of the musically-inclined bunch, but after seeing the insane merchandising push by Disney, I now know otherwise. Besides the very-marketable back-to-school items, the over one hundred licensed products include video games, pillows, and dolls. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of a shoe I saw in Payless recently, if not only because only the wearer of the flip-flops would know their devotion to High School Musical.

For those who want to step on Troy and Gabriella

“The Hills”: Season 3 premiere

Saw a commercial on MTV Canada advertising the third season premiere of The Hills slated for August 13 – meaning we’re right on par with the States for the first time!

You can watch the trailer here. I’d normally be pretty excited to return to the glamorous life of LC and company, but this time around, much of the drama seems fabricated and set up by show producers. But as this is reported to be the last season, I’ll still enjoy it while it lasts.

“Studio 60”: Post-Mortem Commentary

When NBC announced their fall line-up a few weeks ago, it was no surprise that Studio 60 wasn’t among the returning programs. The flailing Aaron Sorkin vehicle had been touted to be one of the must-see shows of the 06/07 roster, but ended up not only with weak viewership, but critical dis-acclaim for reasons I’ve touched on before.

Though they axed it, the network decided to show the unaired episodes starting May 24 that were originally shelved. After watching both “The Disaster Show” and “Breaking News,” I think NBC made the right decision in pulling the plug – the quality really was heading down the tubes.

Something about Studio 60 just didn’t feel right, or as right as its West Wing predecessor. Whether it was the casting (Kari Matchett as an Ainsley Hayes/Amy Gardner hybrid last episode just didn’t work for me), the political situations (the abduction of Tom’s brother in Afghanistan felt hollow; Justin Walker’s redeployment to Iraq in Brothers & Sisters had a stronger resonance), or the storylines (the B-plot about the importance of ratings was exhausting to follow), the show had degenerated into an all-out vanity project for Aaron Sorkin.

The show did have its moments (Allison Janney as herself, and Sarah Paulson was a light throughout), but I’m of the opinion that Studio 60 had to die in favor of better projects Sorkin has yet to dream up.

Farewell Stars Hollow: “Gilmore Girls” Series Finale

The series finale of Gilmore Girls, titled “Bon Voyage,” aired tonight. Ideally, I wanted there to have been closure to most, if not all, of the storylines, but as the announcement of the show’s cancellation came following the shooting of the episode, I really didn’t know what to expect.

So I extend my props to David Rosenthal for putting together a lovely finale – a coup in Christine Amanpour’s cameo, a heartstrings Luke moment (“I like to see you happy,” squee!), and enough strumming Sam Phillips for a sentimental send-off. I appreciated the final pan-out shot of Lorelai and Rory in Luke’s diner, complete with twinky lights – an homage to the way the pilot episode ended all those years ago. And though it was quite evident that Luke and Lorelai were together at the end, I liked how the focus of the last scene was still on the girls, just as it should have been.

Still, though the finale more than fulfilled my expectations, I am still curious to know what Amy Sherman-Palladino’s version would have looked like, and in particular, what those elusive “last four words” would have been. I’m paying close attention to Ask Ausiello, but perhaps I should just let it go, and remember Gilmore Girls as it was.

Farewell, Stars Hollow; thanks for seven great years.

Lights Out in Stars Hollow

CW announced on Thursday that Gilmore Girls will not be renewed. From Variety:

“Money was a key factor in the decision, with the parties involved not able to reach a deal on salaries for the main cast members. Other issues, such as number of episodes and production dates, may have also played a role.”

Though I was skeptical that the quality of the show could be maintained without creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino at the helm, the current season has proven me wrong. The last two episodes in particular have been great – kudos to David Rosenthal for Rory’s struggle upon graduation, and for Lorelai’s heartbreaking serenade to her unrequited love.

For those who don’t watch serial dramas, it really is difficult to understand how much impact a show can have. As sad as it may seem, appointment television really can grow with a person over the course of seven years. I was in high school when I first started watching Gilmore Girls regularly, and since then, I have “matured” right alongside Rory. While I can’t say I could relate to everything the characters went through, there were many moments of felt kinship. Other things will come along to fill the entertainment void, but like West Wing and Ed, my attachment to the show is very much associated to the time in my life when I watched it.

The series finale airs on May 15.

“High School Musical 2” Premiere Date

Mark your calendars – High School Musical 2: Sing it All or Nothing will debut on the Disney Channel and its Canadian Family Channel affiliate on August 17.

Speaking of HSM, rumors are abound that its leads Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens are an item! My cynical self thinks this to be a spring-summer romance, but regardless of the catalyst, it’s a great publicity stunt for the upcoming release.

And if you thought one sequel was enough, I’m sorry to disappoint you with the news that the third installment, Haunted High School Musical has already been planned for a 2008 theatrical release. How’s that for tween power?