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FOX's Crime Scene Kitchen Is the Culmination of a Decade's Worth of Food-Obstacle TV

TV shows used to teach us how to cook. Now they're doing everything they can to stand in our way.
  • Host Joel McHale (center) with judges Yolanda Gampp and and Curtis Stone on the set of Crime Scene Kitchen. (Photo: Michael Becker/FOX)
    Host Joel McHale (center) with judges Yolanda Gampp and and Curtis Stone on the set of Crime Scene Kitchen. (Photo: Michael Becker/FOX)

    It's a testament to human ingenuity that producers have figured out so many different ways to package the TV cooking show. You'd think there would be only so many ways we could watch someone prepare a meal on TV, but this is a genre that keeps finding new ways to differentiate itself, whether it be hosts with big personalities or a genteel competition set amid the pastoral greenery of England.

    Today the new FOX series Crime Scene Kitchen becomes the latest entry in a relatively new but definitely booming subgenre of Food TV wherein contestants are tasked with creating a dish while at the same time finding their way through a series of obstacles that have nothing whatsoever to do with the act of cooking. The origins of Food-Obstacle TV trace back to 2009 and Food Network's Chopped, a cooking competition where would-be chefs are tasked with a basket of incongruous ingredients from which they must create a coherent dish. (Sound easy? You try making something that incorporates a salmon filet, pita bread, a can of creamed corn, a 2-liter bottle of RC cola, and a Mounds bar.) The results often look edible, but at what cost to the dignity of both the chefs and the food?

    With Chopped a hit, Food Network continued to upping ante, leading to the 2013 premiere of Cutthroat Kitchen, an amalgam of The Iron Chef with The Amazing Race or The Challenge. On Cutthroat Kitchen, four chefs go round-by-round preparing assigned dishes, while at the same time bidding on auctioned punishments or impediments that they can dole out to their competitors. The obstacles range from chefs having to cook with an arm tied behind their back, to not being able to use utensils, to having to retrieve their ingredients with a grappling hook.

    Depending on your perspective, the most egregious and/or wildly fun entry in the genre came just last year with Dishmantled, which was created for the famously ill-fated short-form streaming platform Quibi. Under the watchful eye of host Tituss Burgess, contestants were tasked with recreating a meal after having said meal shot out of a cannon and directly into their faces at a tremendous velocity. Resting somewhere halfway between a physical challenge on Double Dare and the kind of forensic blood-spatter analysis seen on Dexter, Dishmantled broke free from the notion that a food show had to be about making good food. In this case, the objective was to figure out what this garish, unappealing mess once was. Which makes it the food version of whatever The Masked Singer is for singing. Dishmantled never truly got its moment in the spotlight due to Quibi's quick demise, but it's now available for free on Roku, so you can watch for yourself.

    Like much of what's on broadcast TV today, Crime Scene Kitchen feels like something Jack Donaghy would greenlight in an attempt to tank NBC on 30 Rock. Or at the very least something that emerged from data that suggested that people liked to watch true-crime investigation shows and The Great British Bake-Off, so why not mash them up? Here's how it works: contestants enter a kitchen where something has recently been baked. They then have to survey the scene in search of clues to help determine exactly what it was that was baked — maybe there's some flour still on the counter, or the microplane still smells of orange zest, or perhaps some buttercream flew off of the beaters of a hand mixer and stuck to the wall. Yes it's an insane premise, but is it more insane than shooting someone in the face with a cannon full of rigatoni bolognese? Probably not. That's just where we're at with cooking shows these days. So start dusting that counter with cocoa powder for jam thumbprints and get with the times.

    Crime Scene Kitchen premieres on FOX Wednesday May 26th at 9:00 PM ET.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Crime Scene Kitchen, Food Network, FOX, Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, Dishmantled, Joel McHale