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TV Series Review

Man, I would hate to have Gordon Ramsay as a boss.

That's probably what most folks say if they catch a few minutes of Hell's Kitchen on Fox. Because I sure hope you wouldn't have to say, "Man, Gordon Ramsay sure reminds me of my boss." The celebrity chef is something of a foulmouthed Tasmanian Devil from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons—all growl and wild gesture and flapping pointy teeth. I'd imagine that there are HR officials around the country who show episodes of Hell's Kitchen to newly promoted bosses, point to the screen and say, "See this? Don't do it."

But laws of civility or guidelines for sound business practices don't hold sway in the world of reality television, and it's little wonder that Ramsay has become one of the most ubiquitous faces in the medium. He's been the star or focal point of nine reality shows on both sides of the Atlantic, making guest appearances on several more. I'd not be surprised to see him show up as a contestant on Survivor soon, perhaps forming an alliance with Snooki.

He'd already be familiar with the basic format of the show: Superficially, Hell's Kitchen is something like Survivor, only with butter instead of buffs. Each season features a bevy of wannabe chefs divvied up into two teams: red and blue. The teams then vie for foodie supremacy by chopping, grilling, flipping and serving the stuffing out of whatever delightful concoction they design or are asked to make. Those who fail to sauté up to Ramsay's exacting specifications are in danger of getting the ol' heave-ho.

But really, food slides to the back burner in favor of Ramsay's colorful histrionics. When one of the cooks messes up, Ramsay will let everyone—sometimes diners still parking their cars outside the restaurant—know about it. He'll scream. He'll curse. He'll slam his fist on the table. He'll throw food. He'll curse some more. He's Julia Child with nitroglycerin in his veins, a chef as hot as his commercial-grade gas-top stove.

There's something to be said, of course, for exacting standards of excellence and an unwillingness to settle for anything less. Ramsay demands perfection, and his chefs-in-training must either demand it of themselves too or leave the show in short order. And when the celebrity chef sprinkles a few rare words of praise or encouragement, contestants soak them up like so much rain in the desert. When you think about it, Ramsay's philosophy is actually quite old-school: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

But there's a fine line sometimes between pushing for perfection and outright abuse. And Ramsay vaults that line with a devilish laugh. Contestants often are in tears after a typical Ramsay dressing down, and the pressure among teams is so intense that often teammates curse and verbally assault each other as much as Ramsay does. (That also speaks to the show's casting process.) Rarely do we get a sense of a team banding together to prove Ramsay wrong about someone. Rather, it's every man for himself, and contestants often undercut each other to excuse their own mistakes.

It makes for a rather Darwinian, cook-eat-cook viewing experience, where the food may be savory but its makers are bitter. Still, the real philosophic issue here is … the language. Dialogue during some particularly stressful shows seems to boast more bleeps than actual words. Thanks to the fast fingers of the Fox censors, it can sound a little like Morse code in Ramsay's kitchen.

Which, I suppose, is somewhat fitting. If you have had the misfortune of working for an always-angry boss, you know that there comes a point in time when all the curses cease to have the impact they once did—when it becomes just a nagging noise in the background: sound and fury, as Shakespeare said, signifying nothing.

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Episode Reviews

HellsKitchen: 882011
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