Top Chef D.C.
Paradox of the week: Top Chef D.C. is something old (going into its seventh season) yet somehow feels new and fresh, while TV Land's original sitcom Hot in Cleveland is new but feels instantly old-hat — and we're not being ageist about the accomplished sitcom dames in the show's overqualified cast.
Both series premiere Wednesday night and are likely to be breakouts in this incredibly cluttered summer of non-stop cable. Chef is an established reality-competition hit and gets off to a confident and scenic start (with a multi-task Quickfire challenge on the Newseum rooftop), while Cleveland is old-fashioned comfort-food TV comedy that's essentially critic-proof. That's due to the canny casting of the beloved and on-a-roll Betty White as a cranky old lady, one of her specialties. (As we saw on Saturday Night Live, she can rise above iffy material, but this show will be a test of the Great White's magical powers.)
Top Chef has the usual early-in-the-season problem of introducing too many chefs in the kitchen to keep track of, but a few chef-testants instantly stand out, especially Alpha Chefs Kenny (from Colorado) and Angelo (from New York, and a masterful name dropper), who refers to himself as a "ninja" and a "sniper" at various times. The opening night's challenges are strong ones, including a $20,000 high-stakes Quickfire contest that tests multiple basic skills, involving peeling and dicing and butchering under pressure; and an elimination group challenge that keeps the tension high.
One player states, "I want to be the first contestant to win every single challenge," and typically, you hope to see such people eat their words. But first, plenty of tantalizing cuisine gets sampled, and when the intimidating judges appear on the scene — now including master chef Eric Ripert as a regular at the table — you can understand why one of the chefs describes it as "surreal." Top Chef is the best-produced of TV's many cooking competitions (with Emmy nominations to attest to that fact), and the D.C. edition is already capital entertainment.
Wish I found Hot in Cleveland as tasty, but it's like the great Betty White snarks to her co-stars: "Well, who didn't see that coming?" This material would have been stale 30 years ago, and the pros whom White is supporting — the still adorable Valerie Bertinelli, Frasier's sardonic Jane Leeves, Just Shoot Me's prickly Wendie Malick — could play these broadly written types in their sleep.
The three younger (but decidedly not young) co-stars are best buds from fabulous Los Angeles whose plane unexpectedly sets down in Cleveland, where much to their surprise the local male population actually gives them a second look. "I haven't felt like a piece of meat in so long," marvels Leeves as the laugh track goes crazy.
"How adorably heterosexual they are," observes Malick, playing a past-her-prime daytime-drama queen.
That's pretty much the set-up. Bertinelli, fleeing a failed marriage, decides to stay, and so do her friends. Makes no sense, but otherwise there's no show. And this is where Betty White comes in, as the eccentrically crabby caretaker of the house they rent. One of her opening lines, to the realtor: "Why are you renting to prostitutes?" Later, she says "whore," because an old lady swearing is always funny. Well, it is when White does it. More or less. In this case, less being the operative word.
But I'm betting her fans, and fans of the other sitcom vets, will settle for less. I simply hope Hot in Cleveland can give us more than the lukewarm pilot promises. Ohio deserves better, and so do these fabulous ladies.
Top Chef D.C. premieres Wednesday at 9/8c, on Bravo. Hot in Cleveland premieres Wednesday at 10/9c, on TV Land.
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