By Jonathan Beebe

Food of Love, Baby

I have a confession to make. I love Emeril Lagasse. And I’m not talking about some fleeting, ephemeral “love,” the kind of love you feel in high school. I’ve loved him for at least two years… so you know this is some serious love I’m talking about. It’s all-compassing. I love his food, his Food Network show, his accent, the ungrammatical phrases he occasionally throws into the mix. Most of all, I love the man. I grew up about 15 minutes away from where he grew up (me in Portsmouth, RI and him in Fall River, MA), so, he reminds me of home. He’s got the southern New England accent that everyone else in my family has (except me, for some reason I’ve never understood). And, of course, he reminds me of all of my lively Portuguese relatives, who make me feel like I belong to something, to an ethnic group, which is difficult to achieve when you’re a mutt (this being scientific term my parents used to describe me and my siblings when we’d ask what nationality we were, before we learned to think of ourselves as “American”).

I suppose, on a more superficial level, I love Emeril because he taught me to cook, which is what makes his Food Network show so popular. He has an ability to make cooking look easy, like it isn’t “rocket science,” as he reminds us constantly. He encouraged me to get into the kitchen and just “do.” If I make a mistake, I imagine he would say, in that wonderful accent of his, “So what?” That makes everything all right.

So, what am I, near-stalker of Emeril, doing reviewing his new NBC sitcom? How could I possibly be anything near objective? To be honest, I can’t. I’m rooting for the show, hoping Emeril takes off into the Seinfeldian orbit to which all sitcoms in the last five years have aspired. Yes, it is true that when I first heard of the show, a pit formed in my stomach. After all, why would Emeril put himself on the line in such a public way? Doesn’t he know that media over-saturation could do to him what too few eggs (because I didn’t feel like going to the store) did to my Devil’s Food chocolate cake? But, then I remember him saying, “So what?” As much as it may seem so on TV, media death isn’t really the end.

Having said all that, I can’t say that the show is particularly interesting—yet. It really does feel like it wants to be Seinfeld, but set in the workplace rather than at home. Like Jerry, Emeril is a surprisingly low-key center, around whom all other characters revolve. And like that other show, Emeril‘s supporting cast is clearly meant to carry the weight of the show’s humor, although in this case, the characters fit much more easily into TV cliches: Trish (Tricia O’Kelley), the insensitive executive; B.D. (Carrie Preston), the ditzy Southerner; Melva (Sherri Shepherd), the brassy black woman; Cassandra (Lisa Ann Walter), the acerbic professional; and Jerry (Robert Urich), Emeril’s narcissistic agent.

Though the show isn’t breaking any new ground here, it does end up being funny at moments. Most of those moments belong to Melva; she steals every scene she’s in. However, I was also surprised at just how good Robert Urich is playing against type, as the dumb agent. (Now that Cagney has scored a role on Showtime’s Queer as Folk and Lacey on Judging Amy, one can only hope that Spenser: For Hire has finally found something long-term to do with his time, now that Love Boat: The Next Wave and The Lazarus Man appear to have gone away.)

The recent trend in “reality sitcoms” (where the main character plays him- or herself) has at least something to do with Seinfeld‘s success. Seinfeld was, after all, like his character a stand-up comedian. However, his show was a success not because of his reality, but because it was a funny show. At first, the fact that the show was about the person who starred in it seemed a novel idea. Soon, though, we got into the habit of watching Seinfeld to see what Kramer, George, and Elaine were up to. Unfortunately, I suspect that many of these sitcoms are trying to trade off the “novelty” aspect of the show rather than the “funny” aspect. Bette Midler’s show last year just wasn’t all that funny and so it didn’t last. Emeril seems like it has a better shot because it actually does have some genuine laughs, but only time will tell.

Still, the one thing I am left wondering after watching Emeril is why there is such a rush these days to create fictional shows about real people at the same time that TV has begun placing real people into fictional situations (e.g., Survivor). My guess is that it caters to our fascination with celebrity. While watching Survivor, I’m sure most of us at least occasionally think about what it would be like to be on the show. We wonder how people would react to us and what job opportunities would open for us and whether or not we would get a guest slot on Letterman (which, strangely enough, has been a preoccupation for the houseguests on both Big Brothers). We wonder what it would be like to get our 15 minutes of screen time.

The fascination of Seinfeld and Bette, and now Emeril, is the reverse, but really the same. We want to watch celebrities be “regular” people: by reducing them to normalcy, we make celebrity attainable. We can believe that it doesn’t take much to be a celebrity. Survivor contestants do become celebrities, if only for several months. Clearly, here’s still a realm of celebrity that is out of the survivors’ reach—we could call this the realm of superstardom, for people like Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts. But, in the last decade, we’ve created a middling level of stardom—a stardom reserved for those with five to 10 minutes of fame here and there—on which all of these shows operate. (Interestingly, Jerry Seinfeld only reached that super level after he cancelled his show. Before that, he was too accessible to really be a star.) Somebody, somewhere in the past figured out that the dream of becoming a star is more marketable (and more profitable) if you actually put stardom within reach. Richard Hatch wouldn’t have gotten naked on TV otherwise. (Well, maybe he would have, but you get my point.) I suppose that’s what Emeril’s real agent—who, I’m sure, is nothing remotely like Robert Urich—told him when he embarked on this project. I only hope him the best and urge him to keep giving the good lines to Melva.

And, Emeril, I’ll always love you no matter what. If things don’t work out, “So what?”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/emeril/