Those Magical Elves have done it again. The producers who helped put Bravo on the map with the original Project Runway and Top Chef have revitalized the seemingly exhausted cooking-competition format with a new winner that smartly combines elements of The Amazing Race and even Survivor. Though not initially quite as exotic as BBC America's new No Kitchen Required, the kitchen culture-clash possibilities appear endless in Bravo's instantly addictive Around the World in 80 Plates (10/9c).
The premise is beyond appetizing, and the game play never less than stimulating. Contestants jet around the world — first stop London, next week Lyons, France; with Morocco, China and South America on the future itinerary — and at each destination, they're thrust into the local food scene by first running a "Course" (in London, a pub crawl), the winning team earning an "Exceptional (read: essential) Ingredient" for an advantage in the elimination challenge. The faceoff takes the form of a "Takeover" of a restaurant, where the chef-testants must master the regional cuisine in a strange kitchen, with regular customers deciding which team wins. In a twist from the Top Chef format, and reminiscent of a Survivor tribal council, the losing team must turn on itself, deciding which among them is sent home. This is where strategy promises (or threatens) to kick in. Will the best chefs triumph, or be sacrificed by team members who feel threatened? Time will tell.
Some things never change. We're instantly introduced to a large cast (12 chefs) that splits instantly into teams before the players know each other and before we can tell them apart. As usual, only the most self-impressed pop first, and rarely in a good way — like the guy who goes by "Cheven" (a blend of "Chef" and "Keven") and considers himself "pretty up there on the culinary totem pole." Or "Nookie," the executive chef for the Boston Red Sox, who seems more concerned with his strategic skills than his cooking prowess. "Am I the best chef here? Maybe not. Do I think I'm going to win? Yeah, I do."
If Around the World doesn't exactly reinvent the genre, it still manages to refine the familiar bits with sumptuous location shooting and a sense of adventure, as the teams hit the foreign turf literally running, which doesn't always help the digestion as they sample native cuisine in the "Course" leg. Curtis Stone and Cat Cora are effective and opinionated hosts, joined in each country by "Food Ambassadors" (Nigella Lawson is the London guest). I'm looking forward to seeing where they go and what they eat (and cook) next. As someone who didn't even make it to the end of the most recent Top Chef season (which felt endless), I can't imagine bailing before this one is over. Journey on.
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BLIMEY, MATES: Staying with the international theme, BBC America's usually reliable Dramaville franchise comes up short with a new miniseries inexplicably titled White Heat (10/9c), which quickly proves to be a warmed-over and tepid mishmash of changing-times clichés. Don't get your hopes up when marquee names like Juliet Stevenson and Lindsay Duncan show up in the credits. They're merely part of the trite framing device, playing modern-day grown-up versions of characters we will follow in their youth from the turbulent '60s to the present time. In 2012, they reunite in a flat they shared once upon a time, before things went sour ("There's not been a day when I haven't regretted what I did to you, not a day," one says to another). The cause for the homecoming: the death of one of their group, whose identity apparently won't be made known until the sixth and final episode.
Good luck making it to that reveal, as our first taste of these characters back in the "good old days" of 1965 couldn't be more of a slog. It starts provocatively enough, though with a very heavy hand — which rarely lightens up — as the flat's cocky and politically progressive young owner Jack (the rebellious pothead son of an MP) auditions potential roomies by promising "a model of living based on equality, based on the welfare of the group rather than the selfish needs of the individual, up to and including sex." Some are repelled by Jack's arrogance, but not restless Charlotte (who will grow up to become Juliet Stevenson), who we see reading Lady Chatterley's Lover and watching TV interviews about women's liberation: "If our sexuality is stifled, so is our potential," says one talking head. White Heat desires to be evocative, but is so obvious with its historical context (the death of Churchill) and its derivative, no-longer-shocking plot twists that it soon becomes little more than white noise.
CLIFFHANGER ALERT: Having successfully reinvented itself this season with the addition of Ted Danson (as Zen master boss D.B. Russell) and Elisabeth Shue (his combative sidekick Julie Finlay), CBS' flagship CSI (10/9c) ends its 12th season with a triple homicide interrupting a rare night out on the town for Russell and his wife (Frasier's Peri Gilpin, nicely acerbic). The case soon turns personal, when evidence leads to one of the series' baddest guys ever: former undersheriff McKeen (Conor O'Farrell), still incarcerated for the murder of Warrick back in the day — and no, Nick still isn't over it — but who still has enough influence to make things ugly for those on the outside, including several members of the crime lab. As so often happens this time of year, we're left with many threads "to be continued."
THE GUIDE: So what else is on? Some selected, annotated sweeps highlights ... After last week's exhilarating blind-side of the clueless Kat on CBS' Survivor, tonight's episode (8/7c) promises a surprise betrayal within an alliance, which makes us wonder once again if anything can shake Kim's masterful control of the game. ... We're down to the Top 4 (two guys, two girls) on American Idol, with "California Dreamin'" as tonight's theme (8/7c). What are the odds someone will butcher The Mamas and the Papas and/or The Beach Boys? ... On ABC's The Middle (8/7c), someone actually asks Poor Sue to the prom. To Axl's horror, her date is his own doofus bud Darrin. Making matters worse, Axl has once again accidentally invited "weird Ashley." ... Road trip! Modern Family (9/8c) heads to Disneyland (ABC synergy?), where as usual things quickly go awry. And what's Haley's ex Dylan doing there? ... Two words: "Beek Jeans." (As in: James Van Der Beek.) They're super skinny, and available only on Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (ABC, 9:31/8:31c). ... Cue flashback. Revenge (ABC, 10/9c) takes us to 2002 to reveal the origins of Emily's plot against the Graysons, back when she was still going as Amanda. ... NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (10/9c) takes on gay-bashing, when Fin's son's future husband is attacked, and the investigation leads SVU to a private school, with an eclectic roster of guest stars including Martha Stewart (fresh from the 2 Broke Girls finale), Veep's Tony Hale and Awake's Dylan Minnette.