September 2007

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Kitchen Confidential

Unless you're the sort of hippy freak who takes pride in not owning a TV, summer is such a strange period of time. Sure, it's nice to unplug from one's favorite shows for a few months, focus on other things. But when a lazy, somewhat hungover Sunday lurks and you have no backlog of 24 to catch up on, you are left with digging into the wonderful world of TV on DVD (because, let's be real, it's HOT outside -- you're not going to go out there). Fortunately, the world of TV on DVD is kind of neat. You kind of almost win.

When Kitchen Confidential popped up in my Netflix recommendations earlier in the summer, I was a bit confused -- mainly because I barely remembered that the show even existed. Based on the memoir by Anthony Bourdain, and one of Fox's last efforts to create a show that might keep poor dear Arrested Development company, the Darren Star-produced half-hour tracked the adventures of Jack Bourdain (Bradley "Will on Alias" Cooper), recovering addict and master chef. The crew of his restaurant included Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Asian dude from Harold and Kumar, and an incredibly hot British guy; the production values were top-notch and the food on screen looked scrumptious. You could almost forgive that the show wasn't actually that funny.

Well, maybe you could, but America sure didn't -- the show was canceled four episodes in, released on DVD two years later. I'd watched a bit of it when it originally aired, but didn't really remember much about it (except, of course, that it wasn't very funny). So I was totally prepared to ignore Netflix's suggestion -- until I visited my parents for the 4th, and my dad introduced me to Anthony Bourdain's new show for the Discovery Channel. No Reservations esssentially casts Bourdain as a secret agent of the culinary universe, traveling the world in search of interesting cuisine. The episode we watched took place in Vietnam and South Asia, where Bourdain drank too much rice wine, learned strange folk dances, and dined with a reclusive billionaire more mysterious than Dr. No. It was great TV, and after I went home to reread my battered copy of Kitchen Confidential, revisiting the series appealed. After all, food is interesting, alcohol abuse is interesting, and nothing makes a hot lazy hungover Sunday more bearable than pretty people screwing up their own lives.

I was very glad that I sat down with the book before watching the series, though, because the translation from book to television series is a fascinating one. Confidential is the rare example of an adaptation only borrowing the world of the story, actively rejecting the characters and plot in favor of an original tale. The show only really uses the little things from the book -- lines of dialogue, random facts and details, a persnickety culinary instructor eventually portrayed by John Larroquette. It is literally just the world of restaurants, as captured by Bourdain's observant and honest pen and tinted by the man's opinions.

It's easy to understand why they made the decision to be so dramatically different, though, especially when it comes to the story's protagonist. While over the course of my hot lazy hungover Sunday, I came to appreciate the eye candy and subtle humor served up by the series, it is a totally different entity than the book, which is at heart a love letter to consumption and experimentation. By the simple act of transforming the real man surnamed Bourdain (who, if he has an alcohol problem, has little interest in curtailing his usage) into a recovering alcoholic, the story is completely changed. And the recovering, as opposed to active, alcoholic angle is a Standards and Practices note that probably should have been ignored; while watching Jack indulge freely in wine, women, and bongs would have warped our nation's children, it's hard to make a character avoiding temptation -- and more often than not succeeding -- all that interesting for more than one or two episodes.

Ultimately, I'm glad that book and show are so different; it frees me up to like both entities, albeit one more than the other. Summer is a fine time for indulging in obscure TV, but while Kitchen Confidential will always have a place on my bookshelf -- well, I'm trying to cut down on my hungover Sundays.

I'm not quitting them entirely, though. Because I know just what Anthony would say about that.