I’ve written here before about the “junioring” phenomenon of reality TV competitions that’s taken over in the last few years. It’s part and parcel of the slow move from reality TV that’s cruel to the contestants, and involves audiences watching shows like Survivor, where people are forced to do things like eat worms, to the kinder, gentler reality competitions embodied by the runaway hit, Great British Bake Off. The kids, being young and innocent, simply aren’t as cut throat or Machiavellian. The judges, faced with children who are remarkable merely for having the poise to show up, let alone create things on deadline, are just not going to give the same sort of ripping to shreds that they would to adults.
The problem is that some reality shows don’t seem to understand when it’s appropriate to go “junior.” Project Runway was very smart about it, running a test series Project Runway: Threads, which had a different set of kids doing challenges every week. They wanted to be sure that the kids could handle the challenges and the pressure before committing to bringing in one group who would do the entire season. So You Think You Can Dance, on the other hand, were utterly idiotic about it, and blundered directly into having kids without any sort of test run, winding up with a season that’s been utterly unwatchable and well-nigh pointless. Next time, Nigel Lythgoe, just let them cancel you.
Food Network has embraced kid versions of their shows with gusto, and with good reason. The first “junioring” success was the US version of Master Chef, MasterChef: Junior. It took Gordon Ramsay down a peg so that audiences didn’t get tired of his over the top rage schtick, while simultaneously showing that teenagers could be trained to cook well enough to sustain several seasons of the series, with surprisingly high-end dishes produced at the end of each episode. But sadly now, it looks like Food Network has gone overboard, with the reveal of their next series: Food Network Star: Kids.
Up until this year, I had been recapping Food Network Star, from all the way back when it was called The Next Food Network Star. I’ve covered the changes in format, from the two seasons where the show aped The Voice, to the return to the original format. I’ve sat through judging changes from back when they were Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson, who actually were real talent scouts and producers for the network, through the entrance and exit of Alton Brown to today’s judging pair of Bobby Flay and Giada.
The irony of leaving my dayjob to write full-time meant I had to focus completely on Game of Thrones this year, and did not have time to watch FNS. I checked in at the beginning of the season and was less than impressed with what I saw. Last Sunday, with Game of Thrones over for the year, I checked back in, and discovered it was Top Five week, and there’s only one contestant who could even be considered for the win. (That’s Tregaye Fraser, for those wondering, despite the fact that the show has, for reasons I cannot fathom, continued to force the terrible, personality-less, flat and dull Ana from the Real Housewives series to the end.)
But what horrified me more was the “Next week” trailer at the end, where the show will have special guests judges on promoting their newest series Food Network Star: Kids.
It was one thing to have Chopped: Junior. It’s another to have Kid’s Baking Championships, or Cupcake Wars: Junior. I’ll even allow Guy’s Grocery Games to have a kid’s version, but only if he calls it Children’s Commercialism Cookery. (Triple C!) But taking Food Network Star–a show that is dedicated to finding actual talent for the network, and turning it into kiddie fluff? Part of the reason FNS works is that the winners have not only become full time employees for the network, some have become stunningly successful because of it. (The aforementioned Guy Fieri, of Guy’s Grocery Games and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, being the most notable.) And moreover, up until now, the show has succeeded in this endeavour. The reason that Food Network Star still thrives, while shows like HGTV’s Design Star failed, is that they actually found people who are network successes. Runners up like Kelsey Nixon and Jeffrey Saad populate Cooking Channel, while winners like Aarti Sequeira, Melissa d’Arabian, Jeff Mauro, Damaris Phillips and Eddie Jackson are seen on the Food Network nightly in judging capacities, or daily on shows like The Kitchen. Even lesser winners like Justin Warner have found their way after several false starts.
To turn this into a tyke-level “aww, aren’t they cute” show is like So You Think You Can Dance going Junior. Not to mention one of the judges, pictured below, is Tia Mowry, who is the poster girl for the fake stand and stir shows on Cooking Channel, where the host stands around and chats with their friends while pretending to wash lettuce and then pulls a perfectly baked pie from a cold oven that someone else baked for her and then planted there 30 minutes ago. So not only do we have a fake show, but fake judges as well.
Someone did not consider that the adult nature of the contestants is necessary to make the show worth watching, because the stakes for an adult versus the stakes for a child simply aren’t the same. It’s also notably that unlike the other Junioring and Kids shows, this will be the one that Food Network hasn’t done a test episode of. Chopped, for instance, had kids on several times before they went full series, as did the Baking Championship and Cupcake Wars shows. (I joke about Triple G going junior, but I’ve now seen two episodes where they tried it with kids. Those are test runs.)
At least Alton Brown seems to be holding firm about allowing children on Cutthroat Kitchen. Sanity must prevail somewhere.