As a reality cooking competition, Netflix’s Barbecue Showdown is perfectly adequate, but as a cultural statement, it’s unmissable. The show’s second season once again uses smoked brisket and pulled pork as the backdrop to a good-natured but significant rebuke to classism, ageism, and regionalism. It presents the barbecue pit as the great equalizer where everyone can belong.
Consider the contestant pool: Barbecue Showdown (which was called American Barbecue Showdown in Season 1) is the rare food competition that throws together contestants from multiple rungs on the career ladder. Up at the top is Delilah Winder, whose Atlanta restaurant is so popular that she’s been praised by Oprah and Bobby Flay. But even though she accomplished enough to host her own series, she’s right there competing next to folks like John Boy Caddell, who’s mostly known in the competitive barbecue circuit, and Eduardo Gonzalez, who’s been barbecuing for less than three years. This gives the show a different emotional flavor than, say, Top Chef, which often features contestants on the professional rise who are hungry for a break. Instead, there’s a sense that everyone is mostly there for the love of the work. The national exposure and $50,000 grand prize don’t hurt, but competitiveness never overwhelms the palpable sense of mutual support.
There’s also a tacit assumption that no one is too young or too old to complete the arduous challenges. That’s true on a multigenerational series like The Great British Bake Off, which is definitely in Barbecue Showdown’s genial DNA, but Tom and Prue never ask the bakers to dig a hole in the ground, fill it with fire, then hurl a fifty-pound slab of beef on top of it. Some of the older contestants — and half of them are over 45 this season — joke about being too stiff in the joints for this type of thing, but they’re kidding. They’re out in the heat like everybody else, and that’s no joke, since the show is filmed almost entirely outdoors in the humid Georgia hills. Even though it’s been constructed by a production company, this optimistic community — diverse across multiple axes, striving toward a common goal — is gratifying all the same. There’s something distinctly American about its joyous depiction of the hard physical labor of pit barbecuing.
It’s also gratifying to spend time with judge Melissa Cookston. Her fellow judge, restaurateur Kevin Bludso, is charming, and so is host Michelle Buteau, who gets mileage out of her corny, meat-based jokes. But Cookston, who’s one of the country’s most venerated barbecue champions, is the type of Southern woman that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent more than six months below the Mason-Dixon line. With her Mississippi accent and raw smoker’s voice, she projects the “don’t-even-try-it” toughness of someone who’s too busy running her restaurants and breeding her own hogs to put up with any nonsense. In one episode, when a contestant accidentally serves her a ghost pepper, she practically destroys him with her glare. No wonder everyone on the show calls her “ma’am” when they address her. At the same time, she is quick to call someone “baby” when she’s giving them a compliment, and she both knows and loves the intricacies of barbecue. She’s a reminder that the archetypes in Steel Magnolias are inspired by actual people, and she elevates the show with her standards and demeanor.
Granted, she and Bledso both have a limited bag of tricks at the judges’ table. In almost every episode, they swear that some contestant’s plate is the “best” version of that dish “they’ve ever eaten,” which doesn’t offer much of a critique. This season’s challenges, meanwhile, err in the other direction, trying too hard to be surprising. In Season 1, episodes were built around barbecue fundamentals like cooking an entire hog or making three different types of sandwiches. This season focuses on bells and whistles that have little to do with the cooking itself, like forcing the players to build a smoker out of a filing cabinet. All cooking competitions eventually suffer from this kind of feature creep, but it’s disappointing that Barbecue Showdown got there so quickly.
At just eight episodes, however, Barbecue Showdown is over before it can become tedious, and besides, the delightful people make it easy to forgive the subpar game design. In their own, modest way, they’re delivering a hopeful vision of Americans getting along. That’s certainly as satisfying as watching someone roast a hog in a hole.
Barbecue Showdown premieres May 26 on Netflix.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.