It's no secret that I'm a fan of cooking shows. From watching Julia Child's lively efforts on PBS as a kid to enjoying Alton Brown's deconstruction and demystification efforts on Food Network's "Good Eats" in more recent years, I've found genuine pleasure and even inspiration in watching talented people prepare meals.
It's been a fairly recent development that the art and craft of food has been married to the competition TV genre. The popularity of shows like "Top Chef," "Hell's Kitchen" and "Chopped" -- my personal favorite -- indicate that there is a strong interest in seeing cooks working against ticking clocks (and each other) in hopes of a big cash prize.
ABC's new culinary competition series, "The Taste," which airs Tuesday nights at 7 p.m., would very much like to be included in the same breath with those shows. Unfortunately, even though it has many of the right ingredients to make for a fun reality game show, the presentation leaves quite a bit to be desired.
The too-long two-hour premiere is Exhibit A. It's an audition episode, and the tryouts are done much like the ones on "The Voice," minus the singing and the spinning chairs. The hook for "The Taste" is that the wannabe contestants have an hour to prepare mere spoonfuls of food for the celebrity judges (led by well-known chefs Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson, both executive producers of the series), and the judges have that one initial blind bite to decide who they wish to have as part of the teams they will mentor. They won't know who has prepared the food until they've already given it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, which means -- or at least the people who developed the show hope it means -- that the show will have a wide-open, "anything can happen" sense about it.
But the first episode doesn't know how to accomplish that. Since this is being done in a standard-issue reality TV format, we meet lots of contestants, from home cooks to professional chefs, some of whom we spend extra time with; some seem like charming souls, some seem like insufferable jerks. We watch the judges try their food, then we watch the contestants' faces as they stand in a windowless box and listen while they are praised or cut down. Then we watch them meet on a studio set that looks like every other reality-competition program's: lots of swirling lights and big buttons and space-race-age architecture. In other words, there's nothing new happening here.
(Plus the show -- in its most annoying trait -- insists on reintroducing its central "blind taste" concept over and over and over, as if they weren't sure that you got it the first time. I can see doing it once or twice during a two-hour presentation, but not after virtually every commercial break.)
So if "The Taste" wants to make its mark, it will stand or fall on the personalities at the center -- are the judges and contestants interesting enough to keep you watching? I'll admit that in these types of shows, there is a more than a bit of pleasure to be had watching someone who has spent their camera time crowing about their tremendous superiority over the field being sent on their way (a quick cut of four professional chefs who did nothing but boast fulfills the schadenfreude quota quite nicely). And the "heroic" contestants -- mostly home cooks -- come off as regular, friendly folks, the kind of people you want to root for. The judging panel, for its part, seems too kind at times, especially when they are apologizing profusely for not picking one person or another, even though they praised that cook's dish. (One rejected contestant is even offered a job by a judge.)
I'm not saying that I want to see all the judges tearing contestants apart like so many crusty baguettes, or that I want more of the contestants to be hissable villains so I can enjoy watching them being knocked down a couple of pegs. I also don't expect anything earth-shattering, format-wise, from a studio-bound reality show. What I'm looking for -- to borrow a word that the judges themselves use a lot -- is balance. And based on the premiere, "The Taste" just doesn't have that. Two and a half stars (out of four).