Somewhere along the winding road of TV network execu-logic, the term 'reality show' was hi-jacked and was redefined into dating game shows where would-be actors send in head shots and studio producers pick them out and masquerade them as real people with 'real' problems that most people would kill for. The modern granddaddy of the reality fad is, of course, Mark Burnett, which makes Burnett's 'The Restaurant' all the more a delightful surprise. From the intro forward, 'Restaurant' is a high concept series that puts class and high entertainment into reality TV. A documentary-style series that follows the high pressure ups and downs of opening and maintaining a restaurant in the middle of New York City. We follow waiters, team leaders, bar tenders, hostesses, the cooks and the management during high volume nights, interoffice scuffles and, ultimately, a battle between for the fate of the business.
The show's anchor is celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito who spends less time in the kitchen and more time out on the floor schmoozing with guests and the nightly table of cute girls in a way that would make Richard Dawson cringe. There is high stress and conflict around every corner as food gets served cold, the customers get restless, and that a**hole head cook treats everyone like garbage. Anti-hero Rocco is the quintessential out-of-touch-with-his-staff boss, implements radical plans, deals with scathing reviews, literal uprisings by the staff and tries to keep his best people from quitting and, ultimately, keeping his co-owner Jeffrey Chodorow from taking things over. Just not hard enough to show up to any of the meetings.
The show puts us right down in the middle of the chaos. The nearly suffocating onslaught of stress works, and the show does give us trapdoors. It's all pretty simple stuff too, made up of the daily minutia off everyday jobs. As a documentary series the creative control in the directing and editing and the packaging is superb. Unlike most, this show's crew seems to respect its material.
But the show goes off the rails in season 2. NBC is, mistakenly, not confident that simply following the nightly action would make a compelling series. When Rocco gets in a bloody turf war with part-owner Chodorow over the business not making money (Rocco is spending a fortune on monogrammed ladles) the dramatic tension is made the soul focus of the show's 2nd half. Also mistakenly, NBC poised babe-magnet DeSpirito as if he is actually the hero of this increasingly sordid story. In season 1 'The Restaurant' was a rich ensemble. In season 2 it becomes all about Rocco who whines and complains constantly that Chodorow is "stealing his dream" but can't bring himself to attend the simplest meeting. DeSpirito is a whining, self-absorbed, shameless and an aloof, if resoundingly incompetent, restaurant manager hated by much of his staff The guilty pleasure highlight of the series actually becomes DeSpirito's schmoozing with the beautiful women who show up to his book signing.
The whole affair becomes just overwhelmingly silly. The two managers bicker like divorcing parents while the staff is caught in the middle like kids being used for leverage and shuttled between them - meanwhile Rocco's 90 year old mother is left in charge of the store. We get vats of sauce being dumped on people and daring raids into a cook's locker while he's being fired.
This is all fine as a single storyline, but 'The Restaurant' is best served when it is about the restaurant, the employees and customers. The players are likable enough or interesting enough to carry the show. There is a budding romance between a put-upon grill cook and a waitress. The occasional marriage proposal that brings the restaurant to a dramatic standstill. Best of all, is a tangentially related bit following a waiter who bombs on stage at a comedy club.
The initial fun of it was just allowing the nightly drama inside the restaurant to unfold before our eyes. Season 2 goes all out to titillate the reality-series audience by artificially amping up the drama. That is exactly the opposite of what was so classy and so much fun about the show in the first place. It was a pure documentary, that doesn't rely on artificial conflict between people grabbing their 15 minutes of fame. I appreciate that there are no studio contrived twists or that nobody gets "kicked out of " the restaurant. Burnett (fresh off his 'The Apprentice' success) could have worked with or around DeSpirito's legal battles and make the show still enjoyable. Even with its sillier moments, 'The Restaurant' was a breath of fresh air in a landscape of dead reality TV. Reality shows before and after this one have been game shows, or dating contests which, in retrospect, makes 'The Restaurant' all the more unique.
* * * / 4
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