February 22, 2013

Some reality shows are famous. People watch them. People talk about them. People parody them on major network sitcoms. Some reality shows, like Survivor, have receded from fame, but continue to lurch about like zombies. Though viewed by no one, their promos occasionally pop up during football games, making us fear that we’ve fallen back in time to the year 2000. And then there are the shows that barely seem to exist at all, flitting around on unheralded cable channels so rarely that you wonder if no one has ever seen them but you.

Those are the shows I like.

Ever see Face Off, the Sci-Fi channel reality series about special effects make-up artists? I watched all of season 2. I watched long stretches of both Ink Master and Best Ink, tattooing competition shows so similar that it’s not clear which ripped off the other. I’m like a cable TV Indiana Jones, digging through the ruins of my DVR to find hidden, mythical treasures. Except that everything I find sucks.

The exception, though, is Food Network’s Worst Cooks In America, which began its fourth season on Sunday. I watched every episode of seasons two and three, and I set a DVR season pass for season four, which makes me—what? A Worst Cooks addict? A passionate fan? A devotee? A moron?

Perhaps somewhere in the middle. A cooking competition show featuring terrible cooks, it has none of the slick glamor of Top Chef. It is a clumsy show about clumsy people, who forget ingredients, burn meals, and routinely let sauces bubble away into nothing but a burnt pan. On Grantland, Max Silvestri has a funny, nasty recap of the first episode. He describes it as something between a guilty pleasure and self-induced torture:

In choosing to watch this show I feel a bit like an addict, in that I am making decision after decision that disappoints and scares my loved ones, and also the sort of people I am hanging around with look like Anne Burrell. I have no idea if Chef Anne Burrell has ever done drugs, and I am not implying she has; I am just saying she looks like the sort of person who can’t get lots of regular jobs because they have strict “Have you ever taken ketamine at a funeral?” policies.

Funny stuff, but he’s being unfair. The raggedness of Worst Cooks is also the source of its charm. The contestants suck at cooking; the show sucks at being a shot. But although its premise seems mean-spirited, this is actually one of the nicest reality shows on television. To foment drama, reality show producers tend to cast sociopaths. Because the conflict of Worst Cooks is built into the premise, the contestants don’t have to be psychotic. They are nice people who, it seems, genuinely want to learn to be better cooks, and don’t mind embarrassing themselves along the way. It’s a cheery format that I would love to see replicated. Possible ideas include  Worst Lover in America, America’s Clumsiest Carpenter, and Are You Smarter Than A Congressman?

If you don’t believe that this show means well, take a look at the comments section of Silvestri’s article, where some of the contestants chime in. Consider Rasheeda, whom Silvestri describes as:

A high heels–wearing corrections officer with braces; she needs to learn to cook, she says, “So I can find my Mr. Right. My clock is ticking.” I hope her womb doesn’t fall out onto the kitchen floor.

That vicious joke, Rasheeda says, made her “lol.” She adds:

Dont take the show so serious. The whole I need to learn how cook to get a man is all in good fun.. I wanted to learm how to cook for myself and my Mr. Right one day. Hopefully my braces will be off by then ;)

The exchange confirmed something I had already suspected: TV recappers are the worst people on the Internet, and the contestants on Worst Cooks In America are the nicest people on television.

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