The seventeenth iteration of “Hell’s Kitchen” is shaping up to be the most heated season yet. The season premiere checked all the boxes for those familiar with the show: intense culinary challenges, fiery interactions between contestants, and an angry Gordon Ramsay. And yet the newest season of “Hell’s Kitchen” is so relentless in its pursuit of drama that it leaves the realm of entertainment and enters one of ridiculousness.
From the moment the episode starts, it is clear that the season will be primarily character-driven—this season is particularly special because it offers a cast of All-Stars, tried-and-true heroes and villains of past seasons. Stepping through an entrance marked “VIP Entry,” the contestants bring a strong sense of familiarity and experience to the show. The cast members, who come from various past seasons, were not chosen simply because they were fan favorites. It’s obvious from the reactions to their entrances—the shocked gasps and dirty looks shot across the room—that they were hand-picked with conflict in mind. As the voiceover promises, “when you give a second chance to the most relentless chefs in the world, you end up with the most electrifying season ever.”
Unfortunately the show’s central conceit—the high-tension arguments and incessant fighting—is not convincing. Rather than setting up believable character arcs and allowing conflict to develop organically, the show has created caricatures of its contestants. This is clearest in the case of Elise Harris, a third-place finisher from season nine and the clear frontrunner of the villains of the show. When she delivers her confessional, “There’s not a day that goes past that I don’t think about the fact that I did not win,” the scripted line feels so insincere, so absent of any self-awareness, that it is almost comical.
This hyperbolic attitude doesn’t end with the contestants. The new season is introduced with a full red carpet, complete with paparazzi and hordes of adoring super-fans. The All-Stars, largely dressed in plain t-shirts and jeans as they run past photographers taking glamorous headshots, are greeted with intense applause. This need to create a cult of personality for a cooking show is unbelievably self-aggrandizing.
Ironically, for all the over-the-top theatrics the show provides, the one thing “Hell’s Kitchen” lacks is actual cooking. Among the distractions, one almost forgets why all of the chefs are gathered together. The kitchen scenes are short and focus on important individuals rather than the process they take to create their dishes. Even the tasting process, where Ramsay stokes the drama by keeping the point values close through arbitrary judgments, severely downplays the cooking. Between criticism of one chef’s raw eggplant, Ramsay sprinkles comments about the contestants’ families and past relationships.
The show’s plot is painfully manufactured as well. The show fails to balance its need to both foreshadow judgement and minimize screen time for meal preparation. The chefs that do have their cooking processes shown—Robyn Almodovar, for example, who struggles to sear salmon skin—are included for conspicuous reasons and ruin all the suspense.
Momentarily exciting but not worth substantial investment, “Hell’s Kitchen” falls into the category of reality television shows that have sacrificed narrative for utterly mindless action. The season should only get wilder from here, but even reality television drama can have diminishing returns. Most importantly, although the genre is clearly processed for effect, the palpable presence of the show writers ultimately creates a product not worth suspending disbelief over.
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