American Barbecue Showdown is a new Netflix reality competition that doesn’t attempt to reinvent or reimagine the form, it just retreads well-trod territory. Food Network has been to barbecue land before, with Chopped Grill Masters even a Food Network Challenge episode titled “Great American BBQ Showdown.” And there was TLC and Destination America’s BBQ Pitmasters, which followed teams as they traveled to BBQ competitions.
So this is not new. But there’s also not a requirement to reinvent the reality competition wheel with every show, because if you do it well, as The American Barbecue Showdown does, it’s a perfectly fine eight episodes that are easy to roll through.
Having a barbecue-themed competition premiering in late September, at the end of the summer rather than the beginning, does feel a little odd, especially since episode two has a Fourth of July-themed challenge. But this is a weird year—with summer reality shows airing in the fall—so it may not be noticeable.
What’s very noticeable is the heat. It’s a very sweaty show, between the temperature of the grills and Georgia in summer. “I think my eyelashes are melting,” contestant Tina says. Filmed last September outside of Atlanta, at a Covington, Georgia, wedding venue called EnChanning Occasions, it’s set in a massive, cavernous barn that’s become a pantry and kitchen, while each contestant has their own barbecue area outside with multiple ways of smoking and grilling.
Despite the larger scale and outdoor location, The American Barbecue Showdown is definitely more Food Network than The Great British Bake-Off, though starting with its title, it obviously tries to hit some UK cooking show notes, with varying degrees of success: there are flat and uninspired illustrations of the contestants’ planned barbecue, and each episode ends with a charming lemonade and iced tea toast between the remaining contestants.
It also has interviews where the contestants say empty things like, I’m either going home or I’m staying and some really obvious voice-over, which I’m always suspicious of in reality competitions.
There are moments of levity, but The American Barbecue Showdown also wants to be taken seriously. There’s kindness, but also some acerbic criticism. In the first episode, the judges sit in chairs, with the hosts perched on the tailgate of a pick-up truck, and telegraph everything they’re going to say again when they actually try the food. Literally none of the judges’ decisions are a surprise.
But the judges are. Melissa Cookston, a 7-time world barbecue champion, is essentially the head judge and might as well be the host, too. Cookston, who’s judged BBQ Pitmasters and wrote Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Southern Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue, introduces challenges, gives color commentary that’s incisive and educational, talks to the contestants, and drawls lines like, “Adapt and overcome, baby,” and “You want to eat me because I’m a big old bad barbecue sandwich.”
Kevin Bludso, a well-known pitmaster and restaurant owner who’s also been on Bar Rescue and judged the Canadian show Fire Masters (which airs on Cooking Channel in the US), is the other judge, and is the best with vivid descriptions and reactions to what he’s eating.
Together, they have everything covered, but for some unclear reason, American Barbecue Showdown also has two hosts. Rutledge Wood and Lyric Lewis have almost nothing to do. They’re like one-ply paper napkins at a barbecue: ultimately pointless and ineffective.
The challenges do present real challenges, especially with limited time for infusing flavor or slow cooking, but the producers also pile on mid-challenge challenges. When one contestant, Georgia, is told about the “mid-smoke challenge,” she says, “There wasn’t time in the schedule for a twist.” says Georgia, who’s planned everything out for the challenge, and I can’t quite imagine how she’s never watched a reality competition.
Its most creative idea is episode four’s bracketed competition within an episode: everyone competes in several rounds—creating sandwiches—but those on the top move into a winners bracket, safe from the possibility of elimination.
But where it excels is in its casting—of its judges, and with its contestants. And more specifically, it’s excellent at tying its contestants lives and experiences to their food, exploring why they’re making the choices they are, whether to honor a friend and former barbecue competition team member, or to honor their heritage.
(The American Barbecue Showdown’s episodes are dedicated to Mary Fanto, the show’s casting director, who died last year. She also worked on casting other reality shows, including The Great American Baking Show.)
The editing gives us multiple layers, so the contestants aren’t as one-note as they can be on Food Network shows, and because they’ve been well-cast, they all have interesting backgrounds.
Rasheed Philips, for example, was born in Jamaica, and has great-grandparents who lived in Columbia, where they helped build the Panama Canal and introduced him to Latin cuisine. And while he knows barbecue, he learned to cook from Julia Child.
Tina Cannon went to culinary school and has since won barbecue championships; now she works as a chef for Meals on Wheels. Tina’s reactions to twists and to ingredients she’s been assigned should become GIFs or memes.
The contestants are characters, literally: there’s a contestant named Shotgun and another named Grubbs. Grubbs tells us he spells “sandwich” “sammich,” and told a journalist that the show’s producers told him to delete a 2013 social media post about Elizabeth Warren.
You can feel the way the editing does the same thing: softens everyone’s and everything’s edges so ultimately this will be a likable show. The contestants do seem legitimately nice and kind to each other, quick to offer each other help and hugs.
I’m so grateful we’re safely be past the Hell’s Kitchen era of reality TV food competition, and also glad to have a competent, well-cast reality competition like The American Barbecue Showdown.
American Barbecue Showdown: B+
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