Kitchen Confidential: That Other Sitcom Fox Cancelled Too Soon
In November 2005, Fox announced that two comedies would be pulled for sweeps week, and would finish out the season with a truncated 13-episode order before cancellation. Both were single-camera, laugh-track-less sitcoms with casts full of comedy ringers. Both had been ratings-challenged, averaging about four million viewers per episode. One of those shows was Arrested Development. The other was Kitchen Confidential.
That short, 13-episode season was Arrested Development’s third, but it was the first and only shot Kitchen Confidential ever got. While yes, there’s nothing like an Arrested Development mention to make comedy fans read a primer for a show they’ve probably never heard of and may never watch, I shouldn’t imply that Kitchen Confidential and Arrested Development are in the same league. Kitchen Confidential is a cute, unambitious little show, a workplace comedy with laughably attractive people, more cleavage than the New York Department of Health probably considers safe, and the kind of rapid-fire clever dialogue used in shows like Gilmore Girls. It was based on a bajillion-selling memoir by Anthony Bourdain, though in kind of the same way Arrested Development was “based” on the Enron scandal: little more than an occasional reference, really. (You can pick out the nods if you’ve read the book: a hatred of non-religious vegetarians, a credo that you only need one knife, a mildly psychotic baker, a tough female cook.) But while nobody, except those weirdos clamoring for an Arrested Development movie, was surprised by Arrested Development’s cancellation, I’m still surprised Fox didn’t give Kitchen Confidential more of a chance.
Kitchen Confidential starred Bradley Cooper as Jack Bourdain (why they changed it from Anthony is more likely than not a sign that this show is not really an adaptation of Bourdain’s book), with an ensemble cast made up of, if not heavyweights, then reliably funny comedic actors. Here’s the list, and where you’ve probably seen them:
- John Cho (Harold, of Harold and Kumar)
- John Francis Daley (Sam Weir, from Freaks and Geeks)
- Nicholas Brendon (Xander, from Buffy)
- Erinn Hayes (Lola Spratt, from Childrens Hospital)
- The improbably named Sam Pancake (Barry’s litigious and gay secretary from Arrested Development)
- Frank Langella (Richard Nixon, from Frost/Nixon, and about a billion other things)
- Jamie King (model)
None of these guys are exactly Bill Murray, but all of them, especially John Cho and John Francis Daley, have spot-on comic timing. Even when the dialogue didn’t quite work, or when the storylines got slightly hacky or misogynistic (which they did, every once in awhile), the line delivery was pretty much perfect. And when the jokes were there (which they were, a lot of the time), Kitchen Confidential could be a very funny show.
Let’s start with the pilot, which, like most pilots, is the weakest episode of the show’s run, and exists mostly to show how the characters got together. Jack Bourdain is a chef in disrepair; though now sober, his drug and alcohol abuse led to the crashing and burning of a promising career as a high-end cook. The pilot finds him slinging dishes like “Ninja Pizza Explosion” at a TGI Friday’s parody that, now that I think about it, has more in common with Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag from The Simpsons than an actual TGI Friday’s. Mysteriously, an intimidating Italian restaurateur named Pino (played by Frank Langella) is in need of a new head chef for Nolita, one of his downtown restaurants, and calls Bourdain in to take the reins. There’s a subplot that explains how Pino got Bourdain’s resume, even though Bourdain never gave him one, but it’s one of the more ill-conceived narratives in the show, involving Bourdain’s girlfriend, who is also his current boss, who gets him a job and then leaves, who is then never seen or mentioned on the show again (?).
But mostly, the pilot has Bourdain jetting around New York, recruiting a crew of the city’s best cooks to work with him. Those include cocky seafood genius Teddy (John Cho), who he convinces to come aboard by promising visas for his own crew (“Enough for Trang, and Ang, and Dong!” “It’s pronounced ‘Ong.’ The D is silent.” “That’s much nicer.”) as well as pastry chef Seth (Nicholas Brendon) and gleefully kleptomaniacal Brit Steven (Owain Yeoman). John Francis Daley, a wide-eyed line cook from Utah, was hired a few days before the ousting of the previous chef, and is kept on by Bourdain mostly for laughs. The other cooks sometimes stuff his locker full of Spanish pornography, and he is frequently seen dropping onions from a giant bag he struggles to carry, which I’m now realizing is a much funnier recurring joke on film than in text.
I like Kitchen Confidential. It’s kind of the comedy nerd’s equivalent of Two and a Half Men: a breezy, shiny, funny show that’s just what you want to watch when you’ve had a hard day at work, or when you’re hungover, or when you’re watching TV with someone who’s never heard of Parks and Recreation and who refers to Zach Galifianakis as “that bearded fat guy from The Hangover.” That’s not meant to be a dig, at least not against Kitchen Confidential; there’s a place for that kind of show, and I think Kitchen Confidential is a lot funnier and better-written than other non-brilliant but still watchable shows like How I Met Your Mother or Chuck. But it makes critical analysis kind of hard. The more deeply you think about it, the more its flaws, which are easily ignored when you’re, you know, hungover, or whatever, seem troublesome. The show’s treatment of women is definitely a weak point: I’ve mentioned the cleavage already, but it’s pretty impossible to overstate the love the directors and costume designers had for Grand-Canyon-deep necklines on the mostly-blonde, mostly shrill or ditsy, and entirely-stunning female cast.
What’s interesting is that in episode five, the show actually challenges its own status quo by bringing in a female chef to run the kitchen while Jack Bourdain is out glad-handing the customers at his increasingly prosperous restaurant.
Erinn Hayes plays Becky Sharp, a former culinary school classmate of Jack’s who is loosely based on a female cook from an essay in Anthony Bourdain’s book. She’s surprisingly well-drawn and well-acted, considering the show had not been doing very well with female characters up to that point: she’s as tough as the dudes, a better cook than all of them, but a full-fledged character, not a nod to female empowerment or a token gesture. She’s refreshing, and as anyone who’s seen Childrens Hospital knows, Erinn Hayes is incredibly funny, so Becky is that, too. Here you can see her one-of-the-boys-ness, and then a glimpse of the shrewish head waitress, Mimi, one of the not-so-fun female cast members.
John Cho’s Teddy is the stand-out, for me. He’s not in every episode, but he really shines in the ones he’s in. Here are some clips from Teddy’s battle with Seth over which is more important, fish or cake. (“Ever heard of a ‘birthday fish’?” “No, did your dad ever take you on a ‘caking trip’?”)
Why Fox cancelled the show is beyond me. Sure, the ratings weren’t great, but the components were all there — solid but not threatening writing, a talented and unnaturally attractive cast, based on a blockbuster of a book, and with a lead who was clearly ready to break into film at a moment’s notice. But the short season that did get produced is a stretch of nice, light, funny television, conveniently up on Hulu in its entirety for your next hungover Sunday.
Dan Nosowitz is a writer and wannabe Canadian. He lives in Brooklyn.