He strides through the streets of New York City, his wild, muddy hair becoming further unsettled by his motion. The camera closes in on his checkered converse sneakers as he parades down the block and then pans up to capture a street sign, a building, the icy expression on his weathered face. The song "Mercy" swells in the background as the man, "the inspiration," continues his walk.
"You got me begging you for mercy, why won't you release me?" sings Duffy, and in these few moments, a certain tone and expectation is set for NBC's new cooking competition reality show, "The Chopping Block," which aired at 8/7 pm central time last night. The opening sequence sends a clear message to the audience. The man in the converse sneakers, chef Marco Pierre White, the star of "Hell's Kitchen" in the UK and the man who trained Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay, is pure evil, and he will beat the aspiring chefs in the competition down like he's hacking up a bloody pig carcass. If America thought guest "Top Chef" judge Toby Young was a pain in the ass, they are in for a rude awakening with Marco. After watching just one episode, I am already convinced that he is the meanest man alive, and that's exactly what NBC wants me to think.
The premise of "The Chopping Block" is fairly simple. Eight couples, each comprised of a chef and server, will compete against one another for the "ultimate prize" - a quarter of a million dollars that they will use to open their own restaurant. The couples are divided into two teams -- the red team and the black team -- and each team will open a restaurant right across the street from the other. Every week, the restaurants will compete against the other -- serving for an unnamed group of diners and an anonymous critic who will be responsible for determining the winning team/restaurant. Chef Marco Pierre White will then chose which couple on that losing team will be sent packing. Think "Top Chef" meets "The Apprentice" meets the "Amazing Race."
Sounds pretty darn entertaining, don't it? How can NBC go wrong with a hybrid of three of the most successful reality shows on the air? Apparently, very easily. Instead of drawing upon the best elements of these fine shows, "The Chopping Block" has appropriated the worst characteristics -- the obnoxious personalities, the transparent attempts at building stakes and audience connectivity, and the contrived sound bytes that reek of a producer's heavy-hand.
The entire show adheres to a specific formula. There are three types of footage funnelling into the final product -- the present action (ie. the chefs cooking, the servers serving, the patrons gagging, and Marco stewing), the one-on-one interviews with the couples about their feelings and the rest of that sentimental hogwash meant to establish emotional stakes, and then, the most egregious component, intercuts of Marco's musings about the world of the show.
Throughout last night's episode, he offered up insights like, "You have to be brave," "Every kitchen, like every army, needs a general," "When it comes to service, they have to fight, they have to deliver," and "When you are playing with people's dreams, you have to be fair." His overarching blanket statements, heaped upon the camera like roadkill, are meant to further establish him as a god-like figure reigning over his subjects -- the contestants. Yet, rather than bolstering him up to achieve the larger-than-life status that Donald Trump owns so effortlessly on "The Apprentice," Marco Pierre White comes across as pompous, unlikable and utterly obnoxious. Even with the bad haircut, he's got nothing on the Donald.
Furthermore, whereas Trump exists in a place above the muddying action and back-biting of his apprentices, Marco Pierre White does not rise above the whines and cries and tears of his proteges. He is enmeshed in all the ugliness these types of reality shows have to bear, but unlike the contestants, can't be kicked off to allow the audience any sort of relief from his abrasive personality. At this early juncture, the couples are also incapable of providing relief from Marco. They are too busy panicking and shaking in their kitchen clogs to offer any relatable sound bytes to the camera. They only further the impression that this show is not about them or the food that is almost completely relegated to the background. "The Chopping Block" is about Marco, who according to chef Vanessa, practically invented food. NBC has essentially built an entire show around an unlikable caricature, and the result is one of the worst examples of reality television since the CW's brief run of "Stylista."
It's got me begging Ben Silverman for mercy.