Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whose Interpretation Of A Japanese Show Reigns Supreme?

This is probably hard to believe, but there was once a time when Iron Chef was a novel idea. While the franchise does continue in the form of Iron Chef America (which is pretty much the same format as the original Japanese show, but somehow doesn't work as well), the fact is that such shows as Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen have taken over the cook-off role, while shows such as MXC and Ninja Warrior have lead to Japanese game shows being associated with messy obstacle courses, not cooking. The fact that Food Network was eventually forced to introduce a reality-competition show - The Next Iron Chef - that is essentially Top Chef with the Iron Chef name on it says a lot in my book.

The show is not a household name in Britain however, although Channel 4, which premiered Iron Chef UK on Monday, is no doubt hoping it will become one. The basic setup of Iron Chef, for the few of you who don't know it: in each episode a chef from somewhere in the world enters Kitchen Stadium to take on one the show's invincible regular Iron Chefs. A flamboyant chairman reveals a theme ingredient that must be included in every dish cooked, then gives the Iron Chef and challenger one hour to cook four or five dishes while commentators cover the preparation like a sports broadcast. When time runs out, it falls to a panel of three or four celebrity judges to decide "whose cuisine reigns supreme."

Well, that's the bare-bones description...there's obviously a lot more to it than that. Certainly in the British version there is, as it is a five-day-a-week daytime show and works on a week-long tournament format that no version of this show has ever had before. There are four challengers who stay on for a whole week, going up against one of the four Iron Chefs each day. Yes, that's four against one - in each episode, each challenger cooks only one dish, while the Iron Chef must cook four in the same amount of time. Two of the dishes are designated starters and are judged at the halfway point of the show (breaking up the flow tremendously), while the other two are main courses and are judged at the end. At the end of the show, we not only find out if the challengers outdid the Iron Chef, but equally importantly, we find out which challenger the judges decided did the best, and that challenger gets a star. After four days, the challenger with the most stars gets to compete against an Iron Chef one-on-one on Friday for a cash prize of 1,000 pounds.

Seriously. That's the format, and somehow, it doesn't feel right. The whole point of this show was that a challenger would come in and face one of the invincible Iron Chefs on a level playing field...this is about as lopsided as you can get. Making matters worse, the budget...I'm not saying Iron Chef is supposed to have a huge prize (most versions have no prizes), but Iron Chef is supposed to have huge production values. This is, after all, the show that became famous for putting the Iron Chefs in elaborate color-coded costumes and having them dramatically rise up from under the floor when introduced, while as many as five commentators looked on. The British commentators (Olly Smith and Nick Nairn) do a perfectly acceptable job, but when Olly has to keep running out from the commentator's booth to interview the chefs (other versions have a separate floor commentator), you know something's wrong. There are also only two judges who stay on for the entire week like the challengers. I'm guessing the show tapes a week's worth of episodes in one day (which is true of most five-day-a-week game shows, but that's a lot of cooking!)

Honestly, I think the real problem here is that Iron Chef is one of the few game shows that I think should never be broadcast five days a week. It's just too much. This is supposed to be a big primetime event. Perhaps if Channel 4 had stuck with the straightforward once-a-week Iron Chef format, they would have been able to concentrate their budget better...but they didn't. I suppose if you had never heard of Iron Chef this would be entertaining, but as I said at the beginning, in the age of Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen, this isn't going to work.


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