Reality television is about many things: voyeurism, spectacle, extreme fertility, finding love, losing weight, baking cakes. If the broadcast venue is MTV, it’s about becoming a teen parent. If the words ‘Competition’ and ‘America’ are in the title of a reality show, crying and/or a B-list celebrity may be involved and eventually, someone will talk about achieving their version of the American dream.
The group of red, white and blue reality TV includes America’s Next Top Model, America’s Got Talent and American Idol. Each show promotes the notion that the American system makes it possible for every individual to succeed. In these series, if you perform better than your competition (or the public likes you) you win the chance at a better life.
But the ‘American Dream: Television Edition’ is tricky. The opportunity it offers is a gateway rather than a guarantee. For every Carrie Underwood, there is a Taylor Hicks. Still, it’s the promise of fulfilling a seemingly impossible goal that keeps contestants lining up and audiences tuning in. Nowhere is this format more obvious than in America’s Next Great Restaurant, a show where contestants compete to realize their dream of owning a fast-casual chain of restaurants.
Armed with nothing more than an idea and enthusiasm, the contestants on the recently completed first season of America’s Next Great Restaurant had to compete in a series of culinary and business challenges in order to realize their goal of opening a group of eateries. They were judged by a panel of chef/restaurateurs who were prepared to invest in a three restaurant chain based on the winner’s concept.
The majority of the contestants however, were not really passionate about food. They were passionate about achieving the American dream. They talked about changing their lives, making their families proud and one even suggested that “everybody came in here with a dream in their heart.” In fact, the ‘living the dream’ concept was so intricate to the show’s theme that judge/chef Curtis Stone announced that someone: “literally wins the American dream” as a teaser in almost every episode’s opening sequence.
The show however, was not all hearts and flowers. The judges liked to remind the contestants of how serious things were by repeating that they were investing a lot of money. Their criticism was mostly based on sound business advice and while it often felt like Curtis Stone was auditioning to be the new Simon Cowell, his blunt critiques were a fair if not original approach to mentoring. Most importantly, unlike other reality judging panels with questionable experts (I’m talking to you David Hasselhoff), the investors on the show are respected and successful in their field which lent the series credibility and prevented it from drowning in sentimentality.
Shows like America’s Next Great Restaurant may give us a made for TV version of the national dream that is rooted in corporate success but they also help us to remember that the dream still exists. This is a good thing, even if one guy’s American dream was to open a chain of restaurants he wanted to call Saucy Balls.