As a general rule, Hell’s Kitchen is not for foodies. Anyone with genuine culinary interest is likely to have better luck with Top Chef—or, in order to maintain the Gordon Ramsay factor, MasterChef. Rather than a weakness, this is arguably the show’s primary strength: Hell’s Kitchen is enjoyable to watch precisely because its contestants tend to be awful at working under the foulmouthed, 12-Michelin-Star chef, who runs his kitchen like a bootcamp and perpetually chews his subordinates out in order to bring out their best. Chef Ramsay demands perfection (which he never gets), and his admonishments rival those of R. Lee Ermey’s infamous drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket for how harsh and expletive-laden they are. This is also why watching the show on DVD is preferable to watching each episode as it airs, for no longer are a disgusted Chef Ramsay’s orders to the “stupid cows” to “fuck off upstairs” censored. There’s also an element of schadenfreude here, as the spectacle of culinary meltdowns makes for a surprisingly addictive experience. The creators of the show are certainly aware of this, and the DVD starts with a reel of clips highlighting its worst moments—people falling over, cutting themselves, cracking under the pressure—that’s so intense it almost turns you off from even watching the show. And indeed, two of season five’s 16 contestants go home for medical reasons: One suffers an ankle injury early on, while one of the final five, a dangerously overweight man, is forced out of the competition after being diagnosed with a heart condition. (He returned the following season.) Several cast members claim this show to be the most difficult thing they’ve ever endured; it isn’t hard to believe. Hell’s Kitchen has a silly pun of a title, but it lives up to its chthonic moniker more often than not.
The fifth season of Hell’s Kitchen is something of an exception to its own rules in that it features a genuinely talented slate of competitors. Often the final two who go head to head in the season finale are there by the process of elimination alone, rather than exceptional ability; not so here. The high skill level among these contestants is clear from the first episode, which begins, as it always does, with each of the hopeful chefs preparing their signature dish for Chef Ramsay’s (dis)approval, and he’s especially impressed by them. There’s no lack of deadweight, of course, but more interesting than the fat that inevitably gets trimmed is the heightened competitive air among those with an actual chance of winning. There are rivalries, betrayals, and heated arguments; what there isn’t, however, is an abundance of behind-the-scenes drama. Hell’s Kitchen is largely contained to the kitchen itself, which provides ample opportunity for the cast members to lose their cool. One interesting, perhaps unintended, effect of this is that the viewer tends to have a skewed perception of time: How much are we not seeing, we’re made to wonder, and how many days and weeks actually pass inside Hell’s Kitchen? If the contestants are allowed any contact with the outside world—whether via phone, computer, or even mail—outside of the confessional-style addresses they make directly to the camera between challenges and dinner services, we’re not privy to it. This is very much a closed system, the claustrophobia of which only intensifies how on-edge everybody is.
To have seen one season of Hell’s Kitchen is, if not quite to have seen every season of Hell’s Kitchen, then certainly to have a very clear idea of how it will go, and yet I and a surprising number of others return to the show season after season. (For the record, I only started watching a little over a year ago, which in Hell’s Kitchen time translates to two seasons; it’s a fairly prolific program.) The show is notable among competitive reality television for having undergone no major structural changes; it employs an apparently tried-and-true formula that’s garnered high enough ratings for six years straight—and, last year, its fourth Emmy nomination. Still, Hell’s Kitchen is comfort (or junk) food TV, the kind of show that justifies each episode’s hour-long runtime by being easy to watch above all else, a major contributing factor to the fact that it’s one of only two I watch episode by episode. (The other, I’m only half-ashamed to admit, is Jersey Shore; I save the good stuff—30 Rock, Breaking Bad, Mad Men—for either Blu-ray or Netflix Instant.) But no one involved attempts to hide this fact: “Your favourite guilty pleasure is back!” exclaims the press release accompanying the DVD set; all involved know—as Chef Ramsay himself must—why viewers continue to tune in. That the chef who wins each season is genuinely talented is often an added bonus rather than an end in and of itself. As tends to be the case, it’s the hell they’re forced to go through, rather than the breath of fresh air awaiting them on the other end, that makes for a fascinating spectator sport.
Watching this four-disc set is not unlike watching an HD show on a non-HD television—or perhaps vice versa. The show is shot in 1080i and, though not as visually refined as other shows of its kind, its almost guerilla filming style tends to be quite clear when broadcast on TV. This transfer is passable if unremarkable; you can often tell that, though there's a good amount of detail on the screen, the footage itself is often blurred and/or out of focus for several seconds at a time. Occasionally it looks quite nice, however, as though some of the lapses in quality have more to do with the multiple-camera setup and editing techniques than anything else. The sound quality is noticeably better, with all the expletives, frying pans, and voiceovers about as clear as can be.
Not a one.
Hell's Kitchen may be junk-food TV, but it's also a fascinating spectator sport.