Monday, September 1
The first five episodes of Big Daddy's House have aired and I can't honestly say I'm happy with how they turned out. It wasn't Aaron's kissing of the raw steak that turned me off (although that was gross) or the fact that his TV kitchen looks virtually identical to that of the Neelys'. In fact, I don't even fault Aaron McCargo Jr. for the show's problems.
My real problem is with Gordon Elliott. Let me explain...
For those who don't know, Gordon Elliott produces some of the most successful programs on Food Network: Paula's Home Cooking, Paula's Party, and Down Home with the Neelys, as well as the recently premiered Big Daddy's House, featuring season 4 winner of The Next Food Network Star, Aaron McCargo Jr.
The hosts of these shows: Paula Deen, an agoraphobic restaurateur from Savannah, Ga. turned TV chef; Pat and Gina Neely, owners of a successful barbecue joint in Memphis; and Aaron McCargo Jr., a hospital catering chef from Camden, N.J. are southern, African American southerners, and African American, respectively. Most of you probably know that, but I threw it in for the sake of clarification... and for the sake of focusing on it, as these groups of people have long histories of being stereotyped.
Also focus on the fact that Gordon Elliott, a man born in Liverpool and raised in Australia, is at the helm of these shows. Liverpool and Australia are just about as far removed from America's Southern and African American cultures as you can get.
Gordon found major success on Food Network with Paula Deen. I've bit my tongue as I watched ole' Paula transform from a sweet, knowledgeable Southern cook into a cackling, sex joke-spewing, verging-on-obnoxious caricature of her former self (most evident in the nightime Paula's Party series). I've refrained from commenting overtly on Gina Neely's "you know how I like it Daddy!" sexually laced humor that many find at best somewhat uncomfortable, and at worst completely off putting and distracting.
When you watch Aaron's show pilot (shown in the last episode of Star) and compare it to this finished product, the difference is striking... and not in a good way. The warm, kinda shy, kinda uncertain guy that we saw on Star has become nearly unrecognizable.
Aaron has been reduced to a "Big Daddy" repeating, "bad boy" referring stereotype of his former self, all done in an apparent attempt to appear like a larger-than-life host. His dishes have, thus far, been rather unremarkable -- often featuring some large cut of red meat and a fat-drenched side dish or two.
He's no longer just Aaron from Camden, but Big Daddy -- a nickname he supposedly picked up on the show, although I don't remember anyone calling him that. Big Daddy, which Aaron repeatedly refers to himself as, shouts "Look at yo bad self!" and refers to nearly every ingredient, pan, or condiment as a "bad boy." Besides being obnoxious in a cooking show, these phrases all have strong racial connections that many would find disparaging.
It's no real surprise that Food Network would go this route, though. The most successful winner of Star, Guy Fieri, is just as over the top in his own way. It makes sense that they'd try to recreate that persona, although it's sickening that being yourself just isn't good enough that often. It's also sad, because I found Aaron's personality on Star to be enjoyable, most of the time.
Looking to capitalize upon Paula Deen's success, Gordon premiered Down Home with the Neelys. From the very first episode, Pat and Gina Neely were basically bouncing off the walls with catchphrases and Southern twang. No easing into anything on that show. The show was met with high ratings, but at what cost to the countless viewers in the South who decry this type of characterization for the network's first show hosted by an African American couple, especially considering Food Network was nearly 100% white for so long. "Why this particular portrayal?" they argued.
Despite representing some of the network's best talent, it's my opinion that Gordon cheapens the hosts by painting them as outlandish, stereotypical characters and not real, multi-faceted people.
Yes, there is the off chance that Paula, Gina Neely, and Aaron McCargo's new "TV selves" are identical to their true personalities and that a little time and coaching was all that was needed to bring them out fully on TV... but I highly doubt that. Aaron's show was being filmed before anyone even knew who he was or that he even won the contest. I can't help but assume that any would-be Food Network host would be vulnerable to complying with whatever "personality tweaks" the producer requested, especially if said producer had several successful shows under his belt.
While there are surely other southern and/or black hosts waiting in the wings, the fact that they'll be measured against Gordon Elliott's shows is scary. Where are they to turn if Gordon tells them they're not ______ enough?
And then I remember the way Paula used to be:
After watching Paula like that, I feel bad that someone (maybe even herself) told her along the way that that wasn't enough -- she wasn't loud enough or memorable enough or "Southern" enough and she'd need to push it even more.
The Paula of today -- the y'all yelling, nasty granny from the South who always knows a good sexual innuendo -- is barely recognizable in that video from her early years. She doesn't even use butter! Butter being the metaphorical gold in Paula Deen's success story.
Even Paula's excessive and unremorseful use of butter hearkens a stereotype: that of the "dumb Southerner" who's just too stupid to know using that much butter could kill you. Yes, Ina does it too, but definitely not in the same, clowny, "watch me drink this melted butter just for fun" way that Paula does. Ina's use of 5 sticks of butter is presented like a smart caterer who wants the food to be so incredibly decadent, knowing it's being served at a special function--not at your morning breakfast table day after day.
Perhaps I am overreacting. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Gordon Elliott's Food Network shows all feature hosts I find to be unrealistic stereotypes that capitalize upon questionable behaviors and over-the-top antics. Perhaps it's wrong to assume that anyone wouldn't alter his own personality for a TV show if the promise of fame and fortune were involved.
Judging from most of the comments this blog has received about Aaron (and Paula and the Neelys), I just don't think this is an overreaction. I think people accept it because it's "just a cooking show." They're really not, though. People are making a LOT of money off of "just cooking shows" and they deserve a little more thought when it comes to determining what is and isn't ethical.
I can't help but wonder what Aaron's show would look like under a different producer's control. Maybe I wouldn't even need to write this.