Hell's Kitchen: Season 1
Hell's Kitchen Season One is the debut of the popular TV game show, currently in its 10th season. I went back to watch this to see how much the show has grown over the past seven years, and I was shocked at the complete difference in tone and focus between this inaugural season and the later ones. It is an enjoyable effort for those that just want a game show without all the drama between competitors that has been increasingly prevalent over the years, but it suffers from being almost too dull and a bit listless in places, unquestionably a result of trying to find its niche in the reality TV world. Nevertheless, you could do much worse for TV entertainment than this first season of Hell's Kitchen.
This season features only 12 cast members, eliminated one by one over the course of the show until the winner is crowned. The format will be instantly familiar to fans and with good reason: it works really well. Early episodes feature the same reward challenge-dinner service- nomination-elimination format that the series has used in every season, albeit with a few differences. The differences include a more and a nomination system that rewards the best player on the losing team with the ability to pick the two players that will be up for elimination. However, because it is the first season, there are a few design flaws. Namely, the decision to not merge the teams after Blue is left with only three players leads to a quite pointless nominating session: the leading chef is told to nominate one of the two competitors, but it is fairly obvious that Ramsay is just going to call up the other one too in order to create some tension. The merged Black kitchen should probably have been created after it got down to seven players, or Ramsay should have just nominated both the weakest chefs on Blue, as it played out there was little drama in that particular nomination session. Other than that, there are a few poorly thought out reward challenges, but otherwise it is a perfectly enjoyable and smoothly executed first season.
There is also plenty of stuff that isn't present at all in the more recent seasons. Loveable Maitre d' Jean-Phillipe, in addition to exceedingly demanding sous chefs Scott and MaryAnn, play a big role in the proceedings, guiding the contestants and adding a different element to the show. Jean-Phillipe gets off some incredibly funny one liners, and Scott and MaryAnn do a great job of busting down on the more useless contestants. Of course, the focus is never really on them, and instead almost always on Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay is as fiery as ever here, smashing dishes, screaming at contestants, and generally being as aggressive and demanding as ever. Many of the show's most entertaining moments come when he gives a particularly bad chef a piece of his mind, and in this season he actually gets one person to quit mid-service (and another to very nearly do so.) He gets another area to shine when customers come up to complain about the perpetually late/bad service (I counted two occasions in this season where every single table was actually served.) While some people have knocked these segments as being potentially staged, they are extremely funny even if this claim proved to be true. Ramsay's laser sharp wit and the customer's general stupidity more often than not leads to yet another entertaining element of the dinner service. Particularly amusing was when one customer actually called in a pizza to the dining room. Ramsay also shows up in a handful of confessionals this season, telling us what he thinks of a given competitor's chances, the previous dinner service, or an upcoming challenge. These are sometimes a bit on the pointless side, but more often than not they are helpful insights into Ramsay's thought process prior to eliminations, or the purpose behind certain challenges. Ramsay and his solid supporting cast deliver an excellent performance here, one that easily matches the output of more recent seasons.
As for the competitors themselves, there isn't really a person that acts anything like the majority of the competitors on more recent seasons. Everyone is relatively well behaved and with a few exceptions during dinner service, there isn't the team drama that one has come to expect from the series. This has the benefit of being a more focused and enjoyable show, but at the same time the individual contestants mostly lack any spark. Only four truly stood out as individuals to me: mother of six and first time line chef Elsie, enigmatic and extremely competent Michael, downright bizarre Dewberry, and stereotypical Italian-American Ralph. The rest of the cast is made up of forgettable and/or bad chefs, so much so that after the second or third episode, there are only three realistic contenders for the grand prize. Despite the fact that only a third of the competition is remotely compelling, it is still fun to watch the incompetent chefs get picked apart by Ramsay and fall by the wayside one by one. It would have been better to have a more competitive and interesting cast, but there are still enough bright spots to be enjoyed in order to keep it from being a totally dull competition.
The first season of Hell's Kitchen is a very strong one, particularly for those who don't like the excessive drama of the last few seasons. Featuring a stripped down cast, mostly recognizable and highly efficient format, and an excellent outing by Ramsay and company, Hell's Kitchen Season One earns a strong recommendation for being an entertaining series of cataclysmic meltdowns and culinary failures.