Talking about the surprising popular success in 1988 of a near-700 page book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000, Francis Wheen cites the New Republicâ€™s comment that â€˜When a serious work of history with more than a 1000 footnotes starts selling in Stephen King-like quantities, you can be sure it has touched something in the public moodâ€™ (youâ€™ll find this in Wheenâ€™s very amusing â€“ and sometimes scary â€“ How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, p.66).
Letâ€™s edit that a bit and apply it to Jamie Oliverâ€™s American â€œFood Revolutionâ€ for a near-perfect description of whatâ€™s going on â€“ â€˜When a smutty work of Reality TV about a very serious issue gets the world talking ad nauseum, you can be sure it has touched something in the public moodâ€™.
The ambiguity of â€œsomething in the public moodâ€ is apt too, because even the fast-talking public canâ€™t seem to figure out what exactly the issue is. The series is about â€œfighting obesityâ€. But the gamut of responses gives the lie to the possibility that it is about any one thing, which is exactly what most commentators seem to miss.
For television stations, the biggest news was that when it premiered on a Friday night, it was the highest-rated Adult 18-49 premiere for any network on the night (returning or new) since September 2007. (Even when it was rebroadcast that Sunday evening, nearly 1.5m people tuned in to watch Jamie rather than Desperate Housewives). Main event: ratings are up !
Early reviews criticized the show (which competes, letâ€™s not forget, with Desperate Housewives) for regurgitating â€œthe worst of reality TV papâ€œ, and for not stressing â€œour cultureâ€™s politicization of food â€” the whole arugula divide, the high cost of eating right, the class issues over portion size, the constant character judgments strewn between a fine meal and the drive-thru.â€ Problem noted: Reality TV is not political enough.
The â€œour cultureâ€ in the above anticipates some of the most vehement â€œanalysesâ€ which postulate that Jamieâ€™s problem is that he is a â€˜pushy Britâ€˜ â€“ or more accurately, that â€˜Americans donâ€™t take kindly to being reproached, particularly by one of their former colonial masters.â€™ Problem noted: Jamie is British. (Question: why are more people apparently listening to him than to their very own Rachael Ray, or Michelle Obama, both of whom are also â€œfighting obesityâ€?).
Another writer summarily debunks the British angle as â€˜nonsensical and egocentricâ€™ and offers her own take on Jamieâ€™s â€œfailureâ€, which has nothing to do with anything, really: â€˜In truth, what makes America think Britain is small isnâ€™t some limey guy falling on his face while dressed up like a pea; itâ€™s Britainâ€™s neurotic obsession with what America thinks in the first place.â€™ Problem noted: America and Britain have broken up.
Then there are the serious, â€œin-depthâ€ analyses like this one which spends 6 pages explaining why the series has has â€˜flunked outâ€™ (Iâ€™m sure ABC would beg to differ). To the authorâ€™s credit, there are one or two intelligent statements like that â€˜the â€œFood Revolutionâ€ is a failure because the entertainment narrative is unable to deal with complexities or systemic issuesâ€™. (Problem op cit: Reality TV is not political enough). But that would have been much more credible had it acknowledged the more general truth that Reality TV is probably not the place to deal with systemic issues in the first place â€“ but that this example (like Jamieâ€™s School Dinners before it) does indeed show that Reality TV might be a useful place to get people talking and maybe eventually making *some* kind of change. But this article is so symptomatic of the system that Jamie Oliver is trying to do something about that its lightbulb moment is acknowledging that â€˜after the first two months of the new meals, children were overwhelmingly unhappy with the food, [chocolate and strawberry] milk consumption plummeted and many students dropped out of the school lunch program, which one school official called â€œstaggering.â€ On top of that food costs were way over budget, the school district was saddled with other unmanageable expenses, and Jamieâ€™s failure to meet nutritional guidelines had school officials worried they would lose federal funding and the state department of education would intervene.â€™ Problem noted: We donâ€™t have time to wait for revolutions (and besides, there are “systems” in place).
Meanwhile, someone who actually works with school lunches in the US responds with a depressing confirmation that the Reality aspect of the show (â€˜A high-school cafeteria that serves nothing but pizza, fries, spaghetti, and iceberg lettuce in the salad bar? A kitchen manager who drinks soda in the kitchen and seemingly spends more time complaining than working? Adults who think students wonâ€™t eat lunch if the meal doesnâ€™t come with fries? A food service director with a permanent smirk on her face who appears to hope the whole experiment fails?â€™) are dangerously close to reality: â€˜Iâ€™ll cut to the chase: yes. These scenes are tragically ubiquitous in our nationâ€™s public school system.â€˜ Problem noted: Reality TV is too real. Lest I misrepresent her, she does actually â€™suspect that Oliver will ultimately be successful on some level, if not in Huntington, then in countless other American school districtsâ€™.
Marion Nestle at The Atlantic is similarly sympathetic, and refreshingly level-headed too: â€˜Take a deep breath. Try not to get turned off by Oliverâ€™s statement that â€œthe food revolution starts hereâ€ (no Jamie, it doesnâ€™t). Try not to cringe when he calls the food service workers â€œgirlsâ€ and â€œluvâ€ (okay, itâ€™s a cultural problem). Remember: this is reality TV.â€™
Well, I could go on, but that would be boring. In fact the only piece Iâ€™d actually recommend reading in its entirety is this one from The Times, which paints an impressive picture of how the Naked Chef found some clothes. (It also contains the little gem that one of â€œbest food momentsâ€ of Jamieâ€™s life was at a â€œbraaiâ€ barbeque in South Africa with people who â€œhad nothingâ€ â€“ except, that is â€˜chicks with their boobs out looking sexy and fellas looking all buff with their mirrored sunglasses. And the tunes going off and homemade hoochâ€¦â€™. His only regret, we are told, â€˜was he didnâ€™t have a film crew with him to capture it.â€™)
What’s really interesting about all the responses is how eager people are to find fault, and in so doing make the preemptive mistake of expecting Jamie Oliver to be more than he is (which is a chef on television). Michel de Certeau:
‘To be sure, a specialist is more and more often driven to also be an Expert, that is, an interpreter and translator of his competence for other fields…. How do they succeed in moving from their technique – a language they have mastered and which regulates their discourse – to the more common language of another situation? They do it through a curious operation which “converts” competence into authority. Competence is exchanged for authority…. But when he continues to believe, or make others believe, that he is acting as a scientist, he confuses social place with technical discourse.’
(The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984:7-8).
That JO has the gumption (conceit/arrogance/courage) to do this thing in the first place is one thing. That the critics collude in mistaking him for a scientist – which they do by critiquing him as if he were one – is far more interesting. Maybe that’s Jamie Oliver’s greatest success?