The strange paradox on Food Network Star

Having reached a creative high two years ago, a season that made Bobby Flay, Giada, and Alton Brown mentors who had to coach and defend their team members, Food Network Star quickly abandoned those changes. Its mentors became semi-regular judges and it lost both education and drama, never mind Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson.

Now in its 10th season, the show–which last night reached its final stage, as viewers can now vote based on the three finalists’ pilots–seems content with being a decent but not great competition. It does remain one of the better shows on Food Network, which is populated with tragic, weak knock-offs of its own knock-off shows (such as Cutthroat Kitchen; it’s so sad to see Alton Brown reduced to that) or shows that are just fake.

What remains most interesting to me about Food Network Star are two things. First, the show may never produce an actual star again, and I wonder how much of that is because the reality competition needs to highlight weakness and problems, and thus we’re left with a “star” whose stumbles we’re familiar with. I don’t think imperfections should be ignored, but I do wonder if viewers ultimately hold that against the star. Would Ina Garten would be the success she is now if we’d gotten to know her racing around a kitchen and bumbling through on-camera segments? Could Sarah be a true Food Network star having spent the entire season (entertainingly) disparaging, judging, and snarking on her fellow contestants?

Most fascinating to me, however, is the strange way in which the contestants struggle in the competition with doing things they do exceptionally well on the reality series.

That was illustrated repeatedly during last night’s episode, the four finalists produced 30-second promos and then the final three produced their pilots. “In front of a live crowd, I’m fine, because I have energy to draw from, but I can not rely on being in front of a crowd all the time,” Lenny said after we saw him fall apart in front of the camera and the mentors. “There’s a gonna be a lot of just me and the camera; gotta nail this one.”

Here’s the thing: Lenny said that in front of cameras. In other words, on camera, he said that he was not good on camera! This is so fascinatingly bizarre, especially because he was engaging, not at all stiff or awkward.

Why is this? I think it’s probably a combination of three things:

  • Over-thinking, self-judgement, and pressure lead to failure. This is such a fascinating illustration of what happens to all of us in real life; we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, or get caught up in our heads worrying about the past or future instead of just being present, and thus we screw up in the moment. As we saw during filming of the pilots, at least two of the contestants realized they needed to just embrace what was in front of them (It’s more important to be natural and engaging than perfect,” Luca said). Mentor Robert Irvine told Lenny, “Don’t think it, own it. I want you to be natural.” When they did that, it was television magic, such as Nicole’s joking about the smoke from a pan that was obscuring her face.
  • External pressure. Lenny acknowledged this while filming his pilot: “This is a heapin’ load of pressure.” Contestants frequently collapse under its own weight. In the challenges, the contestants have a short amount of time to convey a lot of information in a formal context, which is the opposite of sit-down interviews, where they can be relaxed and casual and take a lot more time. Let’s not forget that the Food Network Star cameras are ever-present, so it’s probably a lot easier to be comfortable in front of them.
  • Editing. What we see is, of course, edited and condensed. Sit-down interviews tend to be long conversations with producers, and we’re seeing only the very best parts. Similarly, the producers choose the most dramatic (read: worst) parts of competition to show us. So, the disconnect in their on-camera skill set is greater on-screen than it is in real life, in order to make an entertaining reality competition.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.