Friday, October 28, 2011

Mildly Amusing, Chef! The Complete Series One On DVD Makes For A Tough Sell!

The Good: Funny, Interesting running storyline, Interesting characters
The Bad: Lack of DVD bonus features, Predictable humor, Low repeatability.
The Basics: In a borderline funny BBC comedy, an abrasive chef runs a kitchen with predictable humor.

Some years ago, while traveling on one of my many business trips, I was in a place that had pretty pathetic television options and I spent my Saturday night watching PBS and reruns of Chef! Set in a kitchen in England, it was amusing enough that I remembered it years later. Now out on DVD, I managed to find it on an irresistible sale, so I've picked it up and have made it through the entire first season.

On the first pass, Chef! The Complete Series One is amusing and possibly even original. In fact, I can only think of one other television series - the short-lived Kitchen Confidential - that was set in a restaurant's kitchen. Chef!, upon review, suffers some of the same problems as the brief Fox series, a problem that is accented on DVD: the humor of Chef! is almost so universal that soon the setting matters very little and the viewer can see the jokes coming a mile away. As a result, this is a series that holds up incredibly poorly over multiple viewings.

Le Chateau Anglais is a French restaurant where the finest food in England, if not the entire world, is prepared and served by Chef Gareth Blackstock. Gareth is high-strung, verbally abusive and something of a pain to live and/or work with. He demands the best out of his sous chef Lucinda, the lackeys Piers and Otto, and his new intern Everton.

Outside the kitchen, Gareth is having monetary problems. He and his wife are having a pretty standard marriage when the man is a boar and the woman is a nag, but the two decide to buy Le Chateau Anglais, which forces them to make even more cutbacks in their budget.

Chef! is a strange bird to evaluate because it is a rare serialized comedy - which I like about it - but it involves terribly little in the way of character development. Thus, it is largely plot heavy and focused almost exclusively on Chef Blackstock. Because of that, the show is more about what happens than the people (or, in truth, person) doing it. The plot of Chef! then flows over the seven episodes (one disc) as a story of Blackstock and his staff in the autumn and early winter at le Chateau Anglais.

Chef! begins with the restaurant manager asking Gareth to cut back his kitchen budget by 20%, which Blackstock finds difficult because he has never fired anyone before. Janice concocts a scheme for Gareth to take on an intern, Everton, and promote Lucinda while firing the worker who never shows up on time and shows no aptitude in the kitchen.

The episodes continue with the Blackstocks deciding to buy the restaurant, but discovering the financial pitfalls of owning it will require them to sell their house and bribe bankers and police with free meals. Gareth smuggles illegal cheese in to use in one of his recipes, cooks Creole food he cannot stand and hunts down the best turkeys in England on the eve of Christmas.

First, what works: Chef! is funny. Gareth is amusing to watch for his very British seething moments of anger when he has to restrain his temper as well as for the vindictive outbursts which he tears apart his staff with. He is cruel in humorous ways, always arrogant and consistently well-performed by Lenny Henry.

Unfortunately, much of the humor is obvious and the viewer sees coming well before the first chance to laugh. So, for example, in the first episode, after insulting almost all of his staff, Chef Blackstock tastes a sauce and begins to angrily demand who made it. When Lucinda takes credit, we get the obvious reversal of Chef declaring that it is perfect. Throughout the series, such reversals become commonplace as Chef Blackstock has to apologize to others or admit was wrong to his wife.

And the conflicts between Gareth and Janice soon wear thin on the viewer. After all, there are only so many times that Gareth can say "Shut up, Janice" before it loses its humor and one begins to be disturbed by the obvious cruelty behind it. So, in addition to the humor being a bit obvious at too many points, Chef! suffers because the protagonist is largely unlikable in a way that is less pleasant than amusing.

Similarly, Chef! The Complete Series One is short. With only seven episodes, just under half an hour each, the repetitive nature of the plots and character actions is accented somewhat. Chef! wears itself out quickly on DVD, making for a poor investment for a permanent collection. Because there are no DVD bonus features, all we have are the episodes. Because the episodes focus almost exclusively on Chef Blackstock and his violent mood swings, abrasive declarations and apologies, it quickly takes on a very formulaic feel. One shudders to think how stale it would be by a third viewing.

But the truth is, because it is so repetitive and it focuses on Gareth so heavily, there is little room for any other character to shine. Indeed, I don't believe there was a single scene that did not have Gareth in it. As a result, characters like Janice soon are relegated to looking very much like a parody of a character, as opposed to a genuine character who has any depth or shading to her. She might start the series as a schemer, but by the time the season ends, she is almost exclusively a shrill nag who demands of Gareth in a way that almost makes one understand how he could neglect her in favor of his kitchen.

Ultimately, I fell to the "not recommend" for this one because while it amused me on the first pass, I continued to know exactly where it was going. By the final episode, I was not laughing and if I felt that way on the first pass, it is hard to imagine how poor a second pass would fare. And in truth, I'm in no rush to rewatch any of these episodes.

For other comedy debut seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Arrested Development - Season 1
Weeds - The Complete First Season
Psych - Season 1


For other television reviews, please visit my index page on the subject for an organized listing of all shows/DVD sets/episodes I have reviewed here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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