It seems that America is determined to import the worst of Europe onto its TV screens. Just to clarify, this is not another article bashing “The Late Late Show” host James Corden. I refer instead to NBC’s “American Song Contest,” which took a format devised in 1956 that was already starting to feel a little passé by, let’s be kind here, 1958. Somehow, NBC decided that this was the show that could bring Americans together – in much the same way the Continent hoped the European Song Contest might do all those years ago.
In fairness, “ASC” has probably united most Americans in thinking that an eight-week talent competition pitting 56 performers from across the United States and its various territories (plus Washington, D.C.) is a terrible idea. It’s not that it’s just trailing the geriatric “American Idol” in the ratings every week Stateside. It’s also lagging behind repeats of such TV giants as “Bob Hearts Abishola” and “9-1-1: Lone Star.” And right now, “ASC” would kill to have just a single star on its show.
One wonders, how do they find a live audience for it? Kidnapping someone’s nearest and dearest or, even worse, their smartphone? Yet, this garish, hollow “spectacle” actually achieved the impossible and made me feel a smidgen of warmth for the original show upon which it’s based.
At least with the Eurovision Song Contest you get a sense that you’re experiencing many different cultures choosing to humiliate themselves on live TV. Such experiences range from “Forever stuck in 1975” Spain to “You thought Björk was bonkers? Hold our beer” Iceland. Instead, viewers of the American equivalent suffer through 56 versions of bland garbage. Now I’m going to need to see “Eurovision” next month, for the first time in decades, to see how it’s really done.
The most bizarre element to “ASC” is its resurrection of a handful of musicians who last appeared in the Billboard charts around the turn of the millennium. Ever wonder what happened to the likes of Jewel – “Who Will Save Your Soul” indeed – Michael “Number one with a mullet” Bolton, Sisqó – whose tacky hit, “Thong Song,” is now not his worst contribution to popular culture – and Macy Gray (bear with me while I scrub her one good song from my iPhone)? Me neither. But they’re here, competing against musicians with a lower profile than an ant.
Co-host Snoop Dogg, meanwhile, has sunk so low here, he’s henceforth going to have to be called Stoop Dogg.
Still, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and West Virginia are, wonder no more. “ASC” – which has the chutzpah to describe itself as “the Super Bowl of music competitions” – at least reacquaints some Americans with a map of the United States.
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If NBC really wanted to take a tired old European format and rehash it for a contemporary audience, it would have been far better advised reworking “Stars in their Eyes.” In that wonderfully trashy, 1990s British show, members of the public went to great lengths to look – but rarely sound – like an iconic pop star. We might even generously describe that show as a talent competition.
Best of all – and surely something for NBC to explore – were the celebrity episodes where semi-famous people dressed up as their heroes. As unbelievable as it sounds, folks still talk about British comedian Harry Hill’s turn as Morrissey and his rendition of “This Charming Man” in 1999.
TV comfort food
To be honest, 1999 was probably the last time I actually witnessed a TV talent competition that didn’t involve flour (“The Great British Bake Off”), clay (“The Great Pottery Throw Down”) or thread (“The Great British Sewing Bee”). I have lived in a world free from shows with words like “Talent,” “Factor,” “Real Housewives” and “Kardashians” in them, and have no intention of ever changing that.
What surprised me most while writing this column is how much time I actually spend watching non-scripted shows. They include the abovementioned trio and quite a few others like the little gem called “The Dog House.” In that show, potential owners try to pick out a dog at a rescue shelter and end up competing with the canine to see who has the most touching backstory.
The world of non-scripted TV is the ultimate “comfort food.” It’s a place where you don’t need to make an effort or think too hard about what you’re watching. Instead, you just kick back and luxuriate in the talents, eccentricities and foibles of those on show.
In recent weeks, I’ve been devouring the 16th season of the British version of “The Apprentice.” Yes, the show we will forever hate for turning Donald Trump into a star is still going strong in the United Kingdom. It features everyone’s favorite Jewish grump, Alan Sugar.
An early line of his in the latest season, “You don’t get furloughed on this show – you get fired,” was one of the few moments where you were briefly reminded of the past two years we have lived through and endured. That perhaps helps explain why the show is enjoying a renaissance in Britain with its “back to business” approach.
There’s definitely something to be said for a “reality” show in which the reality is so controlled, maintained and defined, where the only danger is not making the cut for the next episode. Forget “Squid Game,” this is “Quid Game.” I will watch it until the end of time – or till Sugar decides he’s had enough of mercilessly mocking the hapless contestants.
A new British show shamelessly using that shop-worn “Apprentice” formula to winning effect is “Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars.” It really should have been called “The Kitchen Apprentice” – but that wouldn’t have allowed the producers to include Ramsay’s name in the title and generate the hashtag #FFS on social media.
Ramsay is known worldwide as that British chef who swears a lot. When he first burst on our screens in a blaze of F-words, he was the bullying master chef personified. Remembering his meltdowns in earlier hits like “Boiling Point” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” it’s impossible to believe that there isn’t footage locked away of him dunking a poor sous-chef’s head in the deep-fat fryer.
Of course, all of that has changed in 2022. For starters, it would be an air fryer these days. And in “FFS,” we see a Ramsay with all the abrasive edges shaved off. He’s a nicer, kinder, more nurturing soul who just wants to give a little back and is more likely to put an arm around a shoulder than hands around a neck these days.
In “Future Food Stars,” Ramsay – as he never tires of telling us – will give £150,000 ($195,000) of his own money to a young wannabe already running a food business who wants to take the next step. All they need to do is beat 11 other contestants over eight weeks of food-related challenges.
This is basically a giant ad for Gordon Ramsay the reformed monster and Great Britain as a tourist destination. The locations – the idyllic Cornish coastal town of Newquay in week 1; the Chiltern Hills in week 2; the Lake District in week 3 – remind us that Britain is about far more than just London. In truth, the locations are far more appealing than many of the meals created under pressure by the stressed contestants.
It may not have as many memorable characters as “The Apprentice,” and Ramsay is no Alan Sugar, but “FFS” is the perfect show to watch as you wait for your food delivery person to turn up with dinner. Expect local versions to be served up around the world soon.