TV Review: The Chew

The Chew-ABC, Weekdays @ 1 pm ET/12 pm C/PT

If you were a fan of the long-running ABC soap opera All My Children and tuned in Monday (Sept 26) expecting to see Susan Lucci continuing her career-making role as Erica Kane, boy, were you surprised! Another Italian had taken her place. The Chew, ABC’s new entry into the burgeoning reality food show market, now occupies the time slot so long filled by the fictional denizens of Pine Valley.

Unfortunately, at this point The Chew is a little hard to swallow.

Not wanting to judge based solely on the dreadfully unprepossessing inaugural episode – one in which Mario Batali, the cast member with the most star power, literally phoned in his contribution – I decided to watch a couple of follow-ups before commenting. Having done so I can say that after a few bites I’m honestly trying to like The Chew, but it’s simply got to get better.

First, there’s that ridiculous name; “The Chew.” Okay, ABC. Very cute and clever. I can imagine myself in the meeting where the programming executive’s eight-year-old said something like, “Gee! You’ve already got ‘The View.’ Why don’t you call it ‘The Chew!’ Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” And somebody actually liked the idea. Honestly! “The Chew?” Maybe they’re trying to appeal to Southern male viewers. You know, the guys with little circular spots worn into the rear pockets of their jeans?

I do like the premise; take a panel of culinary experts and put them in a kitchen setting to talk about food and to cook in front of a studio audience. But there’s a big problem right from the start – too many cooks spoil the broth.

Since there are five panelists on The View, the network felt compelled to put five panelists on The Chew; Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly, and Daphne Oz. Unfortunately, two of them are obvious fifth-wheels.

Mario, Michael and Carla are the draw cards here. Every foodie on the continent is familiar with at least one – if not all – of these people.

I am thrilled to see Mario Batali back on TV. Admittedly, I would go ga-ga over watching him read a list of Italian ingredients, but beyond that, the man really knows not only his food, but his audience. I’ve watched him work for three guests on a set and I’ve watched him work for a thousand guests in a live setting and he’s fabulous either way. With his bright bold personality, his bright red ponytail and his bright orange clogs, he looms larger than life, but still imparts a passionate and finely detailed depth of knowledge about food and cooking.

Michael Symon is another ray of light. The Food Network folks tried their Iron Chef out in a couple of ventures that didn’t really work too well. They put him in Robert Irvine’s “Dinner: Impossible” shoes back when they were briefly on the outs with the British chef, but even with a shoehorn, Symon didn’t fit and disappeared quickly when Irvine returned. The network bigwigs next loaned him out to the fledgling “Cooking Channel” and put him in his element, a kitchen, where he tried to Cook Like An Iron Chef, a rather poorly received one-man version of Iron Chef . Finally, they gave him a shot at ripping off the Travel Channel’s Food Wars with his own Food Feuds , but his attempt to be Camille Ford didn’t pan out either. It’s a shame because the guy has an outgoing personality, an infectious laugh, and great culinary chops. These attributes added to his “Iron Chef” relationship with Mario present a good team in the making. Symon and Batali are just fun to watch.

I don’t know a lot about Carla Hall other than through watching her compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she acquitted herself quite well. She’s a Tennessee native with classic French training and a decided Southern flair to her cooking. I haven’t heard her utter her trademark “Hootie-hoo” yet, but her cooking segments so far have been entertaining and informative. She seems like a good fit with the other two powerhouse chefs.

These three are the core of the show. With their on-air presence and their culinary ability, they could effortlessly carry the demands of the program. Clinton Kelly and Daphne Oz, on the other hand, are distracting, annoying, and superfluous.

In the company of the aforementioned super-chefs, Dr. Oz’s daughter fits like a foot in a glove. Author of The Dorm Room Diet, and billed by the ABC press machine as a “nutrition expert,” her only notable qualifications are her surname and her photogenic appearance. Watching the real food experts on the set prepare drool-worthy dishes and then watching Ms. Oz throw a handful of psyllium husks on a bowlful of yogurt was like watching a gourmet food truck crash into the front of a health food store. Even Mario got in a sly dig or two at the expense of her shaky culinary POV. Molasses and psyllium husks, anyone?

And where did they dig up Kelly? Wherever it was, I hope they put him back there soon. I know he’s purportedly an “entertaining expert,” but so far the only point to his being on the show appears to be acting as sort of the overall program host, a task at which he fails miserably. As a former talk show host and frequent master of ceremonies, let me offer Mr. Kelly a little advice: nobody introduces a segment with the phrase “Here’s a little thing we like to call ….” And his attempt to announce the death of Doritos creator Arch West with a little comic touch was classless at best. Clinton, your amateur slip is showing. With no real food experience and a personality that vacillates between supercilious and just plain silly, he adds little to the show, although his tablescape segment on Day 3 was interesting. Maybe he’ll grow on me.

The Chew mirrors The View in that the panelists don’t always put on fake smiles and pretend to march in lockstep. Mario’s opinion of Daphne is pretty obvious. And Michael took a poke at her and Kelly after they attempted a “hard news” piece about Listeria-tainted cantaloupes. The two “experts” were basically telling people to ditch cantaloupes because of the potential danger. Symon, in a much more reasonable vein, jumped in and defended the defamed melon, saying, “Don’t freak out,” and advising people to continue to buy cantaloupes and wash them before use. To which Kelly backpedals and tries to close the subject by lamely saying, “know your cantaloupes.” If you have a DVR or similar device, go back and look closely at the audience shot that followed this exchange. There’s a brief glimpse of two women reacting. The sidelong glance and “WTF” look on the face of the lady on the left speaks volumes.

And please, ABC, please! We get the connection with The View. Please find somebody else to do guest shots. Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar are acquired tastes that I really have no desire to acquire. At least Whoopi had the good grace to admit that she knew nothing about cooking and thus had the good sense to sit there and shut up. Not so with Joy Behar. No. In a point of dissent over whether or not to boil lasagna noodles, she told the pro-boiling Mario Batali to “get with the program.” Let’s see, how many award-winning restaurants does she own? Mario took it in stride, wryly commenting, “I have much to learn in this life.”

In fact, Mario already seems to be setting himself as the show’s lynchpin. When helping Carla Hall with a cooking segment, Mario observed her being sidetracked by Kelly into an extended discussion of seasoning cast iron. Mario got the distracted Hall back on track by asking, “Are we seasoning it right now or are we cooking something?”

If ABC were to listen to me about casting – like that’s going to happen – I would dump the deadwood, Kelly and Oz, and move producer/announcer Gordon Elliot out from behind the scenes. The English-born Australian has oodles of television hosting experience. He’s hosted everything from talk shows to game shows and he can also hold his own in the food arena, having served as the driving force behind Paula Deen’s TV empire as well as numerous other Food Network offerings. He has a quick wit, an easygoing personality, and a distinctive voice. You might recognize him from his stint as a pitchman for Campbell’s soups.

A daytime food-themed show comprised of Elliott as the point man and Batali, Symon, and Hall doing the heavy lifting would be a killer success. As it stands right now, The Chew is far more likely to be killed than to be killer. The curiosity factor allowed it to have initial ratings equal to the beloved soap opera it replaced. However, the “new” wears off quickly in network television. Ask Ashton Kutcher over on rival CBS.

But it’s early. There have been only three episodes. The show’s still rocking on its training wheels. I’m willing to give it a while to gather its legs and hit its stride. (Wow! Talk about mixing your metaphors!) I don’t think that’s possible without skimming the Oz/Kelly oil off the surface of the Batali/Symon/Hall water. In culinary terms, it is possible for oil and water to mix. It’s called an emulsion. But the mixture is thermodynamically unstable, and right now so is The Chew.

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