NBC will be expressing an alarmingly low opinion of your taste all this week between 9 and 10 p.m. ET. The vessel of this attitude is Celebrity Cooking Showdown, which rudely folds the D-list dilettantism of Dancing With the Stars into the gladiatorial bake-off format of Iron Chef. “D-list” is a trifle strong, I guess: Singer Patti LaBelle and volleyball star Gabrielle Reese will appear tonight, and Naomi Campbell was originally supposed to be a part of this “exciting weeklong event” as well. She dropped out some days after allegedly chucking a telephone at the back of her maid’s head. Perhaps Campbell’s handlers preferred that she not be seen going at flesh with a 10-inch chef’s knife so soon after her arraignment, but it seems just as likely that, trusting the gut that has made her a supermodel, Campbell followed through on a hunch that Showdown would stink badly. The show itself constitutes a form of assault.
On each of the first three installments, three stars, each under the supervision of a celebrity chef and the pressure of a countdown clock, prepare three-course meals. Each night’s winner, as judged by New York magazine’s frisky veteran Gael Greene and “style and gastronomic guru Colin Cowe,” advances to Thursday’s final. Friday’s show will apparently involve some type of exhibition match among the three professional chefs—affable Govind Armstrong, insufferable Wolfgang Puck, and the irrepressibly spunky Cat Cora, who may want to consider getting a little more repressed. Your host is Alan Thicke, best known as the dad on Growing Pains. The din supplied by the studio audience—woofs, hoots, incessant applause—is such that Thicke must force his lines up and out. Thus, last night, wondering about the potential of Puck’s protégée, he sensitively bellowed, “She has three meals a day delivered. She had her twins delivered by a surrogate. Is there a pattern here?”
He was speaking of Cindy Margolis, whose oeuvre includes a stint capably smiling at dinette sets as one of Barker’s Beauties on The Price Is Right and a funny turn as a “fembot” in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Margolis competed against Tony Gonzalez *, the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Alison Sweeney, three-time winner of Soap Opera Digest’s Outstanding Villainess honor for her work on Days of Our Lives. All three of them seemed perfectly likable and kind, which deepened one’s distress as they were subjected to the show’s pointless rigors. As Gonzalez pandered to the crowd—swigging hammily from his bottle of hazelnut liqueur, tossing forth bits of chocolate—his athlete’s nobility evaporated. Margolis and Sweeney did not don clogs and full aprons; rather, they teetered around in high-heeled mules and met splattering grease with yawning décolletage. Couldn’t they at least have been granted scrunchies to tie their fair hair back from their saucepans? Wouldn’t they have looked cute in toques?
Some might say that Celebrity Cooking Showdown looks as if it were made by people without much experience producing television programs. This would be accurate but not precise. It looks as if it were made by people without much experience watching television programs. The camera, tweakily, never stops moving. The set is a visual garble lit in harsh reds and diseased blues. Proper transitions don’t exist. The “twists” tossed into the competition (the celebrities have to dash to a pantry to find a few missing ingredients and occasionally get to call their mentors in as sous chefs) are stupid. The endless bleating of the audience, which must be digitally enhanced, sets the nerves on edge. It is impossible to follow the progress of the cookery—this is not a show for foodies. When Sweeney plopped a crustacean in a pot, Thicke insisted that “lobster must be cooked alive.” Both David Foster Wallace (in Consider the Lobster, which is great) and Julia Child (in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is even better) say that you would do just as well by stabbing the little fellow between the eyes.
Margolis won the evening with chinois chicken salad, pan-seared Szechwan beef, and baked Alaska. Sweeney, with her button nose and her daytime fan base, was the clear crowd favorite, but her marinated lobster with avocado, blue-cheese-stuffed tenderloin, and citrus crepes could not cut it. Greene—wearing a bucket of costume jewelry and giving every appearance of having turned up here only to hustle her new book—smirked of the crepes, “I’m not gonna say what I think because I want to go home alive,” and the mind’s eye saw a seething pack of Days aficionadas setting upon this septuagenarian with handbags and flatware. Such a scene would make Celebrity Cooking Showdown only marginally more grotesque.