Food Network Star was once one of my favorite reality TV competitions, but then it fell into the well-worn rut that nearly all of Food Network’s shows follow: studio-based cooking competitions. Challenge, judging, elimination.
This once was fresh; it’s now mostly a monotonous slog through familiarity, made more challenging since we know what food competitions can be. Those kinds of shows are mostly fine, and I can get pulled into watching one, but they usually feel more forced than lively. (That’s one of the reasons why The Great British Baking Show and ABC’s version won me over, because they have so much heart and life, and don’t try to force conflict and drama.)
That’s why I was delighted to stumble upon Guy’s Big Project, which stars Guy Fieri as he tests, mentors, and narrows a group of contestants who want their own food travel show like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. It gets closer to being human than any show I’ve seen on Food Network in years.
Alas, perhaps because it shares the same naming structure as all of Guy’s shows, I didn’t notice it until this past week. I’ve only watched three episodes; the others aren’t on demand for me, and the show ends with two back-to-back episodes tonight.
What I have seen, though, is wonderful.
In many ways, it just is Food Network Star’s early years. But its first episode began not in a studio but literally in Guy Fieri’s back yard, and that gave the format an entirely new energy. It’s so much more relaxed and casual than Food Network’s typical fare.
The show is framed as an experiment, so there’s a lot of shots of of camera operators and the production team talking. Showing cameras and producers has become a cliche to try to convince audiences that something is authentic, but Guy’s Big Project has more authenticity than just its acknowledgment that it is a television show.
Alex Guarnaschelli is a judge, sort of, but there isn’t really a formal judging or elimination process. Along with a producer, she watches footage and gives feedback, as do other members of the production team. Guy sends people home by just sitting down with them, rather than having some kind of elimination ceremony.
It’s all just so comfortable and easy. And that’s just so surprising.
Guy’s crazed excitement and effusive vocabulary will be familiar to visitors of Flavortown, but he seems genuinely invested in helping these contestants follow in his footsteps. He’s able to translate his experience on television into insight that helps the contestants he’s mentoring, and makes for interesting television itself.
He won season two of Food Network Star 11 years ago, and even though this show is technically unrelated, it feels like Guy’s now taken on the task of doing what that show no longer does: developing talent rather than just sticking them into a generic cooking competition and not even giving them the promised prize.
Will the winner of Guy’s Big Project actually get a food travel show? In 2017, that’s a lot to ask of a network, but if you’re going to promise it as a prize, maybe deliver on that promise. (The most-recent winner of Food Network Star did not get his own show.)
Even if they don’t, Guy’s Big Project works as a TV show. I hope it will get a second season, and I hope it’ll retain the same elements as season one, because Food Network needs more of what Guy Fieri is doing here.
Update, Dec. 11, with spoilers: The show concluded Sunday night with two back-to-back episodes, and it turned out the second episode was actually two pilots because Food Network ordered two of the three finalists’ shows to series.
I place that in italics because it’s remarkable and shocking; it’s difficult, in 2017, to get a full series order, and from a pilot presentation only is amazing. And the third finalist, the one who didn’t get his own show, will also be on TV, as a judge on Guy’s Grocery Games, where Guy will help develop him as a Food Network personality.
So basically the prize for the runner-up was equivalent of what Food Network Star winners now get. Guy’s Big Project officially is the new Food Network Star, and that makes me want to see more episodes even more.