Kitchen Confidential

What’s Cameron doing in a pool of blood?
— Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper), Kitchen Confidential

In Kitchen Confidential, another fast-action, single-camera comedy from Fox, Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper) has less than 48 hours to assemble a kitchen staff and re-launch his career as a highbrow chef. While inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s book of the same name, the series’ premise also echoes recent TV (recall Rocco DiSpirito’s misadventures with The Restaurant) and, in a more oblique fashion, recent film. Specifically, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11: in a quick-cut sequence casting Cooper as the poor man’s Clooney, Jack tracks down Seth (Nicholas Brendon), Teddy (John Cho), and Steven (Owain Yeoman), the key members of his kitchen posse. With each introduction, the action freezes, his name and skills listed on screen (Steven is both kitchen magician and master thief). Pay attention, director/executive producer Darren Star might as well be saying, because we’ll ratchet up from here.

Other echoes are subtler: Soderbergh’s big-paycheck cast list is answered by Confidential‘s who’s who of cult media. Best known to Alias fans as the Sydney-besotted Will, Cooper has since popped up on Miss Match (as a bros-before-hos metrosexual), wooed Christine Lahti on Jack & Bobby, and garnered weak laughs as the bullying ass destined to lose Rachel McAdams to Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers. Here he shares the screen with favorites like Buffy vet Brendon and John Francis Daley (as Jim), all grown up since playing Sam Weir on Freaks and Geeks. This troika makes for a heady collision of TV universes, but it’s one you get over in an instant. Confidential is too stylishly frenetic to indulge viewer nostalgia.

Here the default state is chaos, the humor clever and crude. In a nod to Carrie Bradshaw’s witty, punny recaps on Star’s Sex and the City, Jack’s voiceover bookends the episode. Introducing himself, he shares his “recipe for failure” over stills from his past: “Take one part natural talent, two parts stellar education, mix with easy success and a generous helping of booze, drugs, and women, and immediately set it on fire.” Cut from the resulting mug shot to Jack in present day, swearing that he’s going “to fork” someone. Did he land in prison? No — worse. He’s ladling swill at a gimmicky pasta joint where entrees have names like “Ninja Pizza Explosion.”

Which is to say, Jack has a hell of a lot riding on his out-of-the-blue second chance, even if he does call it a “suicide mission.” Undoubtedly, odds are against him, as the owner’s daughter Mimi (Bonnie Somerville) can’t wait for him to screw up, and his old pals aren’t quite on board with the newly sober, slightly more serious Jack. What’s more, food critic Reece Righter (Bitty Schram) harbors a very personal grudge (he cheated on her with her sister), insisting that she review his opening night.

Predictably, it’s a comedy of errors. When Jack tells Jaime King’s daffy Tanya (“You put the ho in hostess.” “Why thank you!”) she must give Reece the very best service (even a kidney, if necessary), events conspire to land his ex at the crap table outside the women’s bathroom. Meanwhile, his kitchen wingmen are so busy hazing newbie Jim (inexplicably using “Jiminy!” whenever an expletive would do) that they lose focus. Teddy chops off Steven’s finger, sending everyone on a Wendy’s-reminiscent search for the tip of his digit.

So no, the jokes aren’t as haute as the cuisine. But presentation, on the plate or on television, goes a long way, and Confidential has the look of a winner. Like its Monday-night lead-in, the much-revered, much-ignored Arrested Development, Star’s new series is comfortable going broad or getting sweet. Against a TV landscape of so much compromise and bet-hedging, such confidence can’t help but inspire. Then again, few viewers tuned in for both these series’ premieres last week. So tip generously, while you can.