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diaryland: sirilyan.diaryland.com: entry for 2002-01-09 (09:46:00)
In which our plucky young hero eats domestic.

It's official: when it comes to television, I no longer give a damn about the networks. At all.

Oh, sure, there's Simpsons reruns (and this year's new episodes, which seem to actually be getting back on the quality train to Qualityville), and there's Charlie Brown specials, and Buffy, and there's. There's. There's....

Man, how about that Charlie Brown? What a blockhead!

Cable offers a lot of goodies. There are 24-hour music networks and 2.5-hour music networks that fill the rest of their time with Road Rules reruns. There are networks where NASCAR go fast zoom zoom yeehah, and networks where you hit balls with glorified sticks all day long.

But among all these shining stars of the firmament, there is one light that outshines them all.

I refer to Food Network, oh yes, Food Network.

Or, to be more precise, I refer to Food Network Canada.

Some who read this may wonder just what the difference is between Food Network and Food Network Canada (or, for that matter, between MTV and MTV Canada, or MSNBC and MSNBC Canada). The answer lies in the hearts of Canada's cultural mandarins, who fear that without some sort of barrier being put up, the barbarian hordes of American television will flood our borders, defile our waters, ravish our women and steal our housepets. (People in Colorado who still haven't convinced the state of the need for an electrified fence along the California border will know what I mean.) This isn't necessarily a bad policy; not only does it let Canadians see themselves on television (and not in shows that use "The Star-Spangled Banner" as theme music) but it offers a training camp for Canadian talent, so that luminaries like Michael J. Fox can test themselves in the tepid waters of Vancouver before launching themselves into the turbulent waters of...

...okay, they're still in Vancouver, but this time it's for an American production company.

Anyway, in most cases this does have an unfortunate cheapening effect. There are a few reasons for this; the smaller market, the more limited talent pool, the gypsy curse placed upon CTV back in the seventies. There's an essential, unfortuate Canadianness to Canadian TV, exemplified by the two approaches taken to the product: cloying historicism or bland characterlessness.

99% of Canadian television falls into one of these two camps. The "cultural" production is intended for domestic consumption, and it is always, every single goddamn time a heartwarming family drama about life in the 19th century in Atlantic Canada. It drips with Canada from every pore, just not a Canada that anyone living today ever actually experienced firsthand.

And then there is the "industrial" production, which is set in A Big City That Certainly Has No Distinguishing Characteristics That Might Lead People To Say "Wait, That Might Be Toronto". Industrial productions are intended to be sold on the international market. They don't give a damn about whether people in Calgary or Halifax are entertained, so long as program directors in Jakarta or Edinburgh won't think of the show as being too foreign for their audiences.

But what does this have to do with Food Network Canada? I'm glad you asked.

Food Network Canada inhabits a very lucky niche. Food is a universal language, even more than music, and the cooking show is truly universal television. Rather than being completely divorced from time and place, it knows exactly its time and place: dinner time, in the kitchen. Julia Child, Jamie Oliver, Wolfgang Puck, and Ming Tsai all work in a kitchen. They all make food. Sometimes, themes come along that mean all four of them can make the same food, although each in their own way.

This means that Food Network Canada can produce television that is neither cultural nor industrial. It's just food television, with a slight Canadian flavor. (Flavour. Whatever.) Since everyone knows what a food show looks like, Food Network Canada is free to play around with the constraints of the genre, and along the way produce some very memorable television.

Perhaps the best example of this mix is a show that often comes close to supplanting Good Eats as my favorite food show: Cook Like A Chef. CLAC gets rid of the genre building block labelled "the set must look like someone's kitchen", and instead offers a completely black set with a pair of kitchen islands, exposed spotlights, and a large video screen along the back wall. Professional chefs lead thorough explorations of a single ingredient on each show (demonstrating, for example, how to make your own mayonnaise from fresh eggs and oil, then add to it to make hollandaise, and then use that as a base for bernaise) while cameramen roam freely around the set, observing the chef and assistants at work. If Iron Chef feels like a sporting event, Cook Like A Chef feels like a documentary.

(There's more, by the way. I could talk about The Surreal Gourmet, or how much fun I have watching Rob Feenie, host of New Classics, chatting things up with his sous-chef Marnie, or I could confess my deep and longing crush on Christine Cushing. But this is long enough already.)

Ironically enough, the problems with Food Network Canada all seem to come from the United States. The Canadian network picks up quite a bit of programming from its U.S. parent/counterpart, and while Food Network père produces some quality original programming (Good Eats, for instance, or the surprisingly-good Food 911), there's... well. There's Emeril. (Need I say more?) And I can only assume Jerkass Bobby Flay And His Posse of Skanky Jailbait Sous-Chefs wouldn't fit into the forms TV Guide makes you fill out. But quibbling that Food Network Canada puts Emeril Lagasse on its schedule is like complaining that a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor contains white chocolate chunks; even when it's bad, food television still isn't bad.

Especially, as it turns out, when it's Canadian.

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