What's Next? CSI Junior?
You know the old adage that says, “Children should be seen and not heard?” It seems television these days has really taken the first part of that saying to heart and, at the risk of sounding like the crusty old curmudgeon I am, I'm frankly sick of it.
You can't turn on the blasted boob-tube these days without seeing passels of precocious little pollywogs parading around in some sort of competitive contest. Okay, so maybe the first couple of these programs were mildly entertaining when they hit the airwaves because they were unique. But in its classically derivative, brain-dead, creativity impaired way, television has turned the unique into the ubiquitous, thus destroying any entertainment value the concept might once have possessed. It's like the people who pitch ideas to the networks have decided that slapping the word “junior” on any and everything is a guaranteed sale. And, unfortunately, they appear to be right.
It started with food shows. Somebody got the bright idea that pairing MasterChef's notoriously profane chef Gordon Ramsay, his dour partner Joe Bastianich, and jolly Graham Elliot with a bunch of callow kiddies was going to be “must watch” TV. Who knew? MasterChef Junior became a hit. Apparently there was an itch that just needed to be scratched among American viewers to see a trio of world-class chefs and restaurateurs take a pie in the kisser. And, of course, if Fox could have a hit with a cadre of culinarily clever kids, you know the reigning king of derivative drivel known as Food Network would have to give it a go. So up popped Chopped Junior, and Rachael Ray's Kids Cook-Off, and Kids Baking Championship. There was one entry I (thankfully) missed on FYI called Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown. And I can't quite tell if a You Tube offering called Little Chef, featuring a be-toqued blond moppet named “Tommy Little,” was a serious attempt to cash in on the genre or just a bad parody.
Now get ready, world, because the cooking competition you've all been breathlessly awaiting, Top Chef Junior, is coming to a television screen near you. Oh. Boy. More cute kids in chef coats. Pardon my general lack of enthusiasm. Somebody at Bravo must have a tight grip on poor Curtis Stone's tender parts to get him to host yet another Top Chef spinoff. I would like to say I can hardly wait to watch this one, but actually I can. Eternally, in fact.
And because it's been proven that kids can drive ratings in the kitchen, the next logical step would be to move them out into the ballroom, right? That's apparently what ABC believes as they foist off Dancing With the Stars Junior upon an undemanding world. The pastiche will feature celebrity kids and kids of celebrities paired up weekly with young professional dancers to perform those wonderfully choreographed routines we've all come to love on the original DWTS, or, as I sometimes call it, “Hoofing With The Has Beens.” Count me out from the get-go on this one.
I mean, really! What's next? “CSI Junior,” in which an elite team of underage forensic evidence investigators solve cases at their local high school? The venerable old Survivor series has been in something of a slump. Think of the fun CBS could have with “Survivor Junior!” How about “The Amazing Race Junior” in which teams of tots deduce clues, navigate city streets, interact with locals, and perform physical and mental challenges all while mounted on tricycles and scooters? And wouldn't “Hells Kitchen Junior” be a hoot? I might actually watch that one, if just to see Gordon Ramsay tell a ten-year-old to “piss off.” Or to see how many “bleeps” a prepubescent potty-mouth can fit into one sentence. That's entertainment!
It's gotta stop somewhere, right? No, it really doesn't. Take a look at the unending procession of prequels, sequels, and “reimaginings” being churned out for our consumption on screens both large and small and you'll understand that the people who produce this dreck don't consider derivativeness to be a bad thing. So look for them to keep pushing precocity in our faces until long after today's “junior” stars have become grandparents. I'm afraid we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. The ice chips, as it were.
I guess part of the problem for me is that I don't get all soft and squishy over every little doe-eyed, dimpled darling I see, on TV or elsewhere. Admittedly, some of the kids on these shows are simply adorable, but at the same time, there are others that are simply deplorable. Their antics may be seen as “cute” by some, but all they do for me is set off my brat detector, making them very hard to watch. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a “kid-hater.” I raised two of my own and I now have a delightful bunch of grands to enjoy. But too much of even a good thing is still too much, and by forcing ever larger boluses of kid-centric programming down our throats, the TV execs are rapidly approaching satiety.
And then there's the creeping sense I get of being played. Producers would have you believe these wunderkinds are just average kids plucked off the streets and thrust into circumstances under which they perform like seasoned professionals. Come on! If this is “reality TV,” let's get real. When I was twelve years old I could make a mean meal for my family – as long as they liked grilled cheese sandwiches and frozen French fries. Or maybe Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Minute Rice. My eldest son could whip up a nice spice cake from scratch when he was ten. Both of us have since gone on to run food service operations but I doubt that either of us, even today, could construct some of the elaborate dishes these pint-size “home cooks” toss off with such effortless panache. What? You mean your eleven-year-old can't just whip up an almond-crusted Chilean sea bass with wilted spinach and baby eggplant and a curry yogurt sauce? You say they can barely manage fish sticks and tater tots? Where did you go wrong? If a pan seared filet mignon with sauteed shrimp, glazed carrots and mushroom cream sauce is out of your kid's wheelhouse, you've obviously got an underachiever on your hands.
What they don't show you – and I wish they would – is that these kids are getting massive amounts of off-screen instruction from teams of culinary experts who spend all the hours the child labor laws will allow covering ingredients and going over technique, safety practices, plating and everything else a person of any age would be taught in culinary school. Supposedly, the kids aren't actually coached on particular dishes, but they are given access to tons of cookbooks and resources to help them achieve those “restaurant quality” results. And what would be wrong with letting the viewers see some of this? I, for one, think a few “behind the scenes” vignettes would be much more entertaining and would show us more about the real kids than those dreadful interview segments. Sometimes these kids seem more like budding actors than future chefs. They're all too smooth, glib, and witty for my taste. In fact, one MasterChef Junior alum, Oona Yaffe, landed a continuing supporting role on Fox's Sleepy Hollow. How about taking some real kids from real circumstances, kids who can hardly string three words together in front of a camera and who can barely boil water, and letting us watch them grow and learn as people and as cooks? That would be “reality TV” worth watching.
Oh, well. The channel selector on my remote works very well and I'm a firm believer in voting with my eyes. For my part, when I want to watch kids on TV, I look at videos of my grandchildren. They can't make a perfect Beef Wellington and their paso doble leaves much to be desired, but they're all the kid-centric entertainment I need.