I wonder if anyone at NBC Entertainment watches any of the shows on NBC News or vice-versa. If so, Sunday night might be an epiphanous moment for network television, a cognitive flash of self-awareness that could jolt American culture in the direction of human decency.
Well, yes, I do understand I’m talking about the same network that aired “Fear Factor,” “The Weakest Link” and “My Mother The Car.” But it could happen. It could.
OK, OK, it probably won’t. But dreaming is cheap. And the contrast between Sunday’s episode of “Dateline NBC” about bullies and the reality-competition show that follows it is so dramatic that even a segment of the population as intellectually vacuous and emotionally retarded as network programmers ought to get it.
“America’s Next Great Restaurant” might have been a mildly interesting entry in the reality field. Four chefs and restaurateurs judge the proposals and performance of 21 contestants seeking funding to open a small fast-food chain. Some of the ideas, admittedly, range from loony to disturbing: A combination gun store and cafe? A place featuring “lactation smoothies”? A Hooters for the opposite sex called Peckers?
Others, however, are intriguing. I’d love to visit a joint featuring tacos with fillings like jalapeno crabcake or an all-pot pie place with flavors like Philly cheese steak. And listening to the judges chat about potential marketing or cooking problems with the contestants is pretty interesting. Would a restaurant with nothing but grilled-cheese sandwiches on the menu be able to turn out the product on a fast-food timetable? Have enough Americans sworn off meat to make a vegetarian fast-food chain worth a try?
But “America’s Next Great Restaurant” is quickly undone by the same mean-spiritedness that makes “Survivor,” “American Idol” and the rest of this genre such an unpleasant viewing experience. Winning depends at least as much (and probably much more) on impressing the producers with television skills as it does on winning over the judges with culinary expertise or business savvy. So taunting and back-biting among the contestants is a dreary constant.
And the judges, whatever their restaurant acumen, are out-and-out louts, smirking and ridiculing their way through the shows like the cross-bred bastards of Gordon Ramsay and Donald Trump. One is Miami’s Lorena Garcia, who maintains South Florida’s near-perfect record of contributing nothing to national television, but she’s far from the worst. That would surely be the Brit chef Curtis Stone, whose surly abuse of contestants is all the more untoward for his utter ignorance of American cuisine. How did a guy who’s never heard of banana cream pie manage to get a job as a judge on a show like this?
The answer is supplied in the hour before “America’s Next Great Restaurant” airs. “Bullies love an audience,” declares one of the experts interviewed by “Dateline NBC’s” Kate Snow for a disquieting but perhaps hopeful episode titled “My Kid Would Never Bully.”
Though it includes some insightful conversations with such people as Rosalind Wiseman (whose book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” was the basis for the film “Mean Girls”), this report is much more than a compendium of talking heads. Its most compelling moments make use of hidden cameras to record the reactions of teenagers when they observe other kids being bullied. Unknown to them, the bullies and their victims are unpaid actors. Another thing they don’t know: Their own mothers are watching on video monitors in another room.
In some ways, the results are heartening. Almost all the unsuspecting kids react against the bullies when they start mocking a skinny, unathletic boy as a “queerbag” or trashing an overweight girl for wearing horizontal stripes. Some try to distract the bullies; others are openly confrontational. It quickly becomes apparent that if just one kid will speak out against the bullies, others will back him up.
But there are also moments of desperation so disturbing that they’re almost impossible to watch. One girl slips quietly away to a corner of the room, where a hidden microphone picks up her tearful whisper: “It’s so hard.” It turns out she’s been the victim of bullies at her own school. After last year’s furor over the suicide of a gay college freshman tormented by his dormmates, thinking of bullying as a subset of homophobia has become common. But as “Dateline” makes clear, bullying is neither new nor necessarily related to sexual orientation: Kids for years have been victimized for walking, talking, dressing or doing almost anything else differently than the rest of the crowd.
Still, I wonder if a hidden-camera show done at my high school or junior high 40 years ago would have revealed as many kids willing to stick up for the weak or the out of step. My favorite was a girl named Lilly, who argues fiercely with the bullies and finally unleashes an F-bomb. “Nice language, daughter,” gasps her blushing but proud mother in the room down the hall.
If only we could slip Lilly onto “America’s Next Great Restaurant.”
DATELINE NBC: MY KID WOULD NEVER BULLY
7-8 p.m. EST Sunday
AMERICA’S NEXT GREAT RESTAURANT
8-9 p.m. EST Sunday
Glenn Garvin: ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com