Why Food Network Star’s changes gave us reality TV’s best makeover ever

Food Network Star, which keeps losing words from its title (it’s sometimes just referred to as Star now, but that’s dumb), remains one of TV’s best competitions. And in its seventh season, it did something remarkable: It changed things up and improved significantly from last season, which felt tired and predictable.

CBS Eye Productions and Food Network managed to shake up the format significantly while simultaneously retaining everything awesome about the show. At once, it feels totally new and entirely familiar. It’s remarkable, and I cannot think of another reality show that ever did something like this. It’s the best makeover in reality TV history.

There was a period when the 90-minute episodes were feeling very long, but otherwise, the show is working on every level now. (It’s almost unbelievable that the same network that airs fake shit like Restaurant Stakeout has given us this show.) Here’s what’s changed for the better:

  • More Bob and Susie. No competition judges on reality TV are better than Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson. Period. They excel not just because they know their stuff—this is their real-life job, after all—but because they deliver critiques flawlessly and also are fully formed human beings with feelings. They have been rebranded as “the network,” but most importantly, they are the only judges now. No guest judges making decisions despite the lack of historical knowledge, no awkward Bobby Flay judging.
  • The addition of mentors/producers. Casting actual Food Network stars as the eventual producers of the show that this competition produces is genius. I liked the playful competitiveness that we got early in the season between Bobby, Giada Pamela De Laurentiis, and Alton Brown; they seem to have backed off of their ownership of the contestants a little bit. But still, they coach and impart their expertise very, very well—and it just makes perfect sense to use talent in this way.
  • A better last-chance challenge. The bottom two or three contestants compete in the Producer’s Challenge, which gives them the chance to be evaluated for their on-camera skills. Their producers coach them the most here, and now, the other contestants on that person’s team watch. In other words, everyone learns from the producer. That reinforces that this is not just a reality competition, where leaving the others in the dark would make for more drama if they landed in the bottom and fumbled and made the same mistakes that their predecessors did. It seems more than ever that the show is designed to both find and produce a TV star.
  • Better eliminations. Having the contestants and their producer(s) sitting at a table and defending them to Bob and Susie is intimate and intense. Leaving the cavernous kitchen/studio space and replacing it with a warm room only highlights Bob and Susie and just makes for better interaction all around.
  • Letting viewers pick the winner. Giving the audience control is always a risky proposition, but doing that only for the winner makes sense here: That means it’s more likely that the winner’s show will be successful, since they presumably have a greater fan base—though as we’ve seen with Idol’s winners, for example, that’s not always the case. But the show hasn’t really produced a star for the network since season two, and only has three memorable winners (Aarti Sequeira, Melissa D’Arabian, and Guy Fieri), so it might as well try this.
  • Quirky, unexpected people were cast. Producers have done a good job of finding people who are both good reality show cast members and good potential Food Network stars. That said, since day one, it’s been clear that this is Justin Warner’s to lose: He’s a brilliant chef and great on TV, especially since he’s so atypical. (Tell me you wouldn’t watch his show just to stare at his lips more.) I am, however, surprised with the final six, who seem blander as a group than many of those who were eliminated early on.
  • Better challenges. The challenges collectively seem like better TV and better tests for Food Network stardom. Last night’s live demo challenge, complete with the on- and off-camera producers screwing with the contestants to test them under pressure, worked really well. Best of all, they’re just fun to watch—like this entire season is.

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