Thoughts on televising the revolution

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 Republic’s comment that ‘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 mood’ (you’ll find this in Wheen’s very amusing – and sometimes scary – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, p.66).

Let’s edit that a bit and apply it to Jamie Oliver’s American “Food Revolution” for a near-perfect description of what’s going on – ‘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 mood’.

The ambiguity of “something in the public mood” is apt too, because even the fast-talking public can’t seem to figure out what exactly the issue is. The series is about “fighting obesity”. 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, let’s not forget, with Desperate Housewives) for regurgitating “the worst of reality TV pap“, and for not stressing “our culture’s politicization of food — 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.” Problem noted: Reality TV is not political enough.

The “our culture” in the above anticipates some of the most vehement “analyses” which postulate that Jamie’s problem is that he is a ‘pushy Brit‘ – or more accurately, that ‘Americans don’t take kindly to being reproached, particularly by one of their former colonial masters.’ 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 “fighting obesity”?).

Another writer summarily debunks the British angle as ‘nonsensical and egocentric’ and offers her own take on Jamie’s “failure”, which has nothing to do with anything, really: ‘In truth, what makes America think Britain is small isn’t some limey guy falling on his face while dressed up like a pea; it’s Britain’s neurotic obsession with what America thinks in the first place.’ Problem noted: America and Britain have broken up.

Then there are the serious, “in-depth” analyses like this one which spends 6 pages explaining why the series has has ‘flunked out’ (I’m sure ABC would beg to differ). To the author’s credit, there are one or two intelligent statements like that ‘the “Food Revolution” is a failure because the entertainment narrative is unable to deal with complexities or systemic issues’. (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 – but that this example (like Jamie’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 ‘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 “staggering.” On top of that food costs were way over budget, the school district was saddled with other unmanageable expenses, and Jamie’s failure to meet nutritional guidelines had school officials worried they would lose federal funding and the state department of education would intervene.’ Problem noted: We don’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 (‘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 won’t eat lunch if the meal doesn’t come with fries? A food service director with a permanent smirk on her face who appears to hope the whole experiment fails?’) are dangerously close to reality: ‘I’ll cut to the chase: yes. These scenes are tragically ubiquitous in our nation’s public school system.‘ Problem noted: Reality TV is too real. Lest I misrepresent her, she does actually ’suspect that Oliver will ultimately be successful on some level, if not in Huntington, then in countless other American school districts’.

Marion Nestle at The Atlantic is similarly sympathetic, and refreshingly level-headed too: ‘Take a deep breath. Try not to get turned off by Oliver’s statement that “the food revolution starts here” (no Jamie, it doesn’t). Try not to cringe when he calls the food service workers “girls” and “luv” (okay, it’s a cultural problem). Remember: this is reality TV.’

Well, I could go on, but that would be boring. In fact the only piece I’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 “best food moments” of Jamie’s life was at a “braai” barbeque in South Africa with people who “had nothing” – except, that is ‘chicks with their boobs out looking sexy and fellas looking all buff with their mirrored sunglasses. And the tunes going off and homemade hooch…’. His only regret, we are told, ‘was he didn’t have a film crew with him to capture it.’)

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?