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The Taste

Series Premiere
Cast: Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre, Brian Malarkey
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET

(ABC; US: 22 Jan 2013)

No Bearing

In this culinary spin on The Voice, contestants’ dishes are judged solely on The Taste. As potential mentors make their decisions without seeing the chefs or knowing anything about them, the competition assures that both professional chefs and untrained home cooks have an equal shot at the trophy. That said, they also face an increased risk of elimination, as the “blind” taste test format can be continued throughout the series, rather than only used in the audition phase. This means that, down the line, mentors could unknowingly eliminate their own contestants.


These mentors create another difficulty. As they aren’t as widely recognizable as the pop icon judges of The Voice, The Taste must spend more time outlining their credentials and personalities during the premiere episode, airing 22 January. Anthony Bourdain is probably the most famous of the bunch—which includes Ludo Lefebvre, Nigella Lawson, and Brian Malarkey—and he comes with a bit of reputation, as a no-holds-barred persona. But while we might expect him to be an excellent Simon-Cowell-type judge, in the first audition episode of The Taste, his characteristic bluntness simply doesn’t translate. Only one of the contestants offers up a truly horrible dish, and in that instance Bourdain holds back his snarky comment (“There’s no college dorm in the world where this would pass for food”), until the contender leaves the room. The rest of the spoonfuls up for tasting are largely commended by all the judges—who then go on to reject them nonetheless.

This curious dynamic might be a function of the format: because a mere four spots are available on each team, only a handful of the approximately 30 contestants make it through the audition round. This leads viewers to feel frustrated, preventing our investment in any of the contestants because they will probably not go on anyway. Moreover, the judges frequently admit to making a mistake in not choosing this or that chef to join their teams, and because the show sets up no clear criteria for judgment, their decisions make little sense. For example, in one shocking turn, Ludo offers a rejected contestant a job, saying, “She did nothing wrong.” But if she did nothing wrong, why didn’t she move on in the show?


Indeed, with minimal explanation for the judges’ decisions and sparse description of how the food actually tastes, there is almost no way for the viewer to differentiate between the good and the bad dishes. The simple fact that winners are selected based on “the taste,” something that television viewers cannot experience for themselves, makes it very difficult both to gauge which contestants deserve to continue or to get attached to any of them. How can you pick your favorite when you can’t judge the food?


Other cooking competition shows tend to get around this dilemma by getting viewers invested in the contestants’ personalities and backstories, yet the whole point of The Taste is to show that these elements should have no bearing on how well someone’s recipe does in a taste test. While some backstory is provided for us (but not for judges), it is pared down compared to many other competition shows. Because we can’t act as judges ourselves, the show is far less interesting to watch than, say, a singing competition.


This makes for an essential paradox. Although cooking shows have been very popular over the years, The Taste relies on the visual format of its performance-oriented model, which, as a show that stresses another one of the senses, it cannot replicate. While the premiere features beautiful shots of the contestants’ dishes, a necessity for any food show, the rest of the episode features awkward angles and framing. The under-the-table shots of the big “YES” and “NO” buttons that the judges use to indicate their decisions have skewed proportions, and this clumsiness eliminates all of the suspense these shots are meant to evoke.


Even worse, during tasting, the contestants are locked away in a tiny room that resembles a poorly lit closet. We see the chef up for consideration from an awkward downward angle, as he or she listens to the judges’ discussion. Once all the decisions are made, a panel slides back to reveal the contestant, and then closes him or her back into the casket after the results have been revealed.


Such game show tricks don’t help. The Taste is a confusing show with humorless banter that does not inspire the audience to become invested in the contestants. It’s doubtful that viewers will be coming back for seconds.

Rating:

Liz Medendorp is an English instructor at several institutions within the Colorado Community College System. She earned her Master's degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focused on notions of success in cross-media adaptation, specifically drawing on examples from the works of Joss Whedon. She has been very active at academic conferences, presenting research on popular culture and new media studies through the lens of academic scholarship and theory. She has also published works in the areas of translation and fan studies, including a chapter in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer volume of the Fan Phenomena series from Intellect, Ltd. She is an aspiring screenwriter for both film and television.


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