There’s no more dependable genre of cheap, personality-based entertainment than the food show. We have the competition. We have the travelogue, both highbrow and low. We have guided meditation disguised as Hamptons lifestyle porn. We have pressure cookers and hoity-toity docuseries and whatever Vanderpump Rules is.
And yet the single most prolific source of unscripted TV has given us precisely nothing worth watching on the scripted side. Case in point: Feed the Beast.
AMC’s new dramedy, which burned off its first two episodes in quick succession on Sunday and Tuesday nights, is not a good show. Instead, it is an answer to the question of “Hey, what do you think David Schwimmer is doing right now?!” in a universe where The People v. O.J. Simpson never happened: costarring in the story of two childhood friends with substance abuse issues starting a restaurant in an alternate version of New York City where “the Bronx is the new Brooklyn” and the health department has yet to supplant organized crime as the tyrannical overlord in food workers’ lives.
Schwimmer plays Tommy, a sommelier who spends his days gazing forlornly at the $18,000 espresso machine his wife bought right before she died. Jim Sturgess plays Dion, a coked-out chef recently out of prison. (Sturgess does to a blue-collar-New-York accent what Jon Hamm does to a British one, which is to say — he doesn’t.) Together, the two decide to throw caution and zoning laws to the wind and convert Tommy’s apartment into their dream business.
There’s plenty to poke fun at here. Kinsey from Mad Men does his best Knockoff D’Onofrio as a mobster called (really) the Tooth Fairy; Sturgess wistfully and repeatedly describes dishes that ultimately sound like pretty standard Greek food.
But the most frustrating thing about Feed the Beast is that it simply doesn’t have to be this way. It’s based on the Danish series Bankerot, a show from a country with no shortage of either spectacular food or quality television. It’s adapted by Clyde Phillips of Dexter, a show that at least waited until it killed off John Lithgow to truly go off the rails.
Most importantly, it couldn’t have a more perfect setting for a great cable dramedy.
Consider the great small screen workplaces, amped-up versions of the age-old formula that gave us Mary Tyler Moore: Larry Sanders’s hive of writerly insecurity and showbiz self-absorption, The Sopranos’ riff on the middle-aged suburbanite clocking in another day at a very unusual office, Sterling Cooper’s booze-soaked brainstorming sessions, the Meyer administration’s emphasis on profanity over policy. The bananas coworking ensemble was one of the ingredients that made cable’s brave, new-ish world such a refreshing alternative to aggressively sanitized 20th-century network TV. It may be a cliché now, but the illicit thrill of watching respected professionals lose their composure was real, like finding out your curfew-policing parents secretly smoke pot.
As we learned from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which exposed the industry as a hotbed of drug use and quasi-legal workarounds, a restaurant mimics these conditions perfectly. Somehow, no one has figured this out. The closest we’ve come is Party Down, Starz’s short-lived chronicle of a motley crew of catering drones, but the real industry at that show’s center wasn’t food service; it was Hollywood, the promised land after a purgatory of passed appetizers. Similarly, Master of None manages to pack in more knowledge of contemporary New York dining as its side gig than Feed the Beast does in its entire runtime, though its food component remains just that: a side gig. Vice’s Eddie Huang–hosted Huang’s World trades on Bourdain’s image of the foodie-badass, who combines the sensuality of the true aesthete with the tattoos and physicality of a good ol’ dude. But when Huang’s food-and-family memoir Fresh Off the Boat finally made it to TV, it was adapted — Huang would say watered down — into a restaurant-adjacent sitcom. Our lack of good food narratives isn’t even limited to TV. Features have a similar documentary-narrative divide: on the one hand, the transcendental Jiro Dreams of Sushi; on the other, the accidental camp classic Burnt.
Given that a line-by-line adaptation of some of Bourdain’s more colorful anecdotes would make a decent-enough pilot script, it’s a baffling vacuum, and one that’s begging to be filled. We’re still waiting on a fictionalized version of the shouting, blow-snorting, storage-room-sex-having archetype Bourdain established.
So instead of kicking a show while it’s down, let’s use Feed the Beast as a call to action. Give us your lewd, your arrogant, your marbled steaks crying out to be filmed, and put them in front of a camera. Give us Peggy Olson in a chef’s toque, working her way up from the line. Give us hilariously petty waitstaff and domineering bosses and the Silicon Valley–esque hoops an overregulated, underpaid small business has to jump through to even open its doors. MAKE FUN OF WINE CULTURE! No adult should use the word “bouquet” for anything but a bunch of flowers.
This is America. If we’ll watch Sandra Lee make semi-homemade Kwanzaa cake just because it’s there, imagine what we’d do with a halfway-decent restaurant show.