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Kitchen Confidential: A Matter of Taste

With the possible exception of lima beans -- the gold standard for universal food hatred -- no two palates are entirely alike. One man's haute cuisine is another's pet chow. Same goes for Kitchen Confidential, Fox's new culinary sitcom; whether you clamor for more or spit it out depends entirely on your taste in comedy.

Fellow Vidiot Monty Ashley has reamed the show for unimaginative plotting, paper-thin characters, and a deeply unlikeable protagonist. Honestly? He's absolutely right, especially about the plotting. Of course the food critic coming to give the restaurant its opening-night review is the head chef's frosty ex! Of course the conveniently severed fingertip winds up on said critic's plate of sea bass! Of course she writes a favorable review of the restaurant anyway! It's not like the scriptwriter could come up with anything novel or surprising, right? That would be all hard, and stuff.

And yet ... it's still really funny. Kitchen Confidential moves with the blistering pace of classic screwball comedy, with visual, verbal, and auditory gags flying from every direction. Like its far superior lead-in, Arrested Development, the show's unafraid to stretch its sense of humor slightly toward the surreal. (As long as they're not actually suffering in real life, people catching on fire are my idea of comedy gold.) For all my critiques of the plot, the pilot did set up one classic "wacky misunderstanding" only to defuse it with a welcome dose of common sense. And there's a refreshing measure of subtlety in at least some of the wit, as when the show presents an Olive Garden-like chain restaurant as its hero's own personal vision of culinary Hell.

Kitchen Confidential's terrific cast deserves the lion's share of the credit for the show's graces. Bradley Cooper -- most notably seen pining for Jennifer Garner, as the surrogate for every right-thinking heterosexual man, on Alias -- plunges into the role of semi-sleazy chef Jack Bourdain with gusto. He's a fast-talking scoundrel, sure, but he takes enough well-deserved karmic lumps to retain our sympathy. There's something sort of moving in Jack's realization of just how far he's fallen from his gustatory glory days, and how desperately he wants to stay sober and responsible. Cooper also manages to completely sell a scene in which he addresses his staff while holding a gigantic fish, which is no mean feat.

His restaurant full of cheerful lunatics includes seafood samurai John Cho; earnest newbie John Francis Daley, formerly of Freaks and Geeks; Owain Yeoman as an apparent graduate of the Guy Ritchie Culinary Institute and East End Finishing School; Jaime King as the sweetly dim hostess; and Buffy's Nicholas Brendan as the high-strung pastry chef. They do a great job of making the funny stuff funnier, and the awful stuff considerably more palatable. The personality they bring to their roles helps paper over the script's flimsiness. (Although it's slightly distressing to see that Xander is now sporting some serious jowls.) Only Bonnie Somerville, as the obligatory rival-who-will-inevitably-become-the-love-interest, can't quite rise above the gaping hole where her character ought to be -- but she's trying, at least.

The one rotten ingredient in this otherwise pleasant recipe: The odious influence of producer Darren Star. No, really, Mr. Star, thank you so much for "improving" the show with a parade of skanky, drunken socialites who bear no resemblance whatsoever to the horrible, horrible stars of Sex and the City! And that walking cliche of a gay waiter? The one who makes Nathan Lane look like Clint Eastwood? Man, was that a brilliant decision! (It's not the actor's fault, I should add -- in the one or two moments where he's not required to act like Sean Hayes to the nth power, he's funny and likeable.)

Still, Kitchen Confidential succeeds in spite of itself -- at least for now. Like Monty, I'd like to see more actual cooking on the show, what with it being set in a restaurant and all, and the mere mention of Darren Star's name makes me shudder, but I'll be tuning in again in hopes that the show builds on its unexpected strengths. If Arrested Development is a five-star gourmet comedy experience, Kitchen Confidential is more like a really good hamburger -- but given the slim pickings among new shows this fall, that's fine by me.


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