kitchen nightmares - UK and US version. why is there such a huge difference in quality?
August 18, 2011 5:24 AM   Subscribe

kitchen nightmares - UK and US version. why is there such a huge difference in quality?

i recently watched an episode of kitchen nightmares and thought it was really excellent, intense and real so i decided to watch some more which were just awful in comparison. it turns out that the first episode i watched was the UK version and the others the US version. i didn't know there was a difference beforehand. i've since continued watching the UK version episodes which are invariably really good.

the american version feels so incredibly fake. for instance when the owners/staff are shown the redesigned restaurant it feels like they're trying too hard to show enthusiasm. also they constantly show what's going to happen in the next few minutes in mini previews throughout the show.

is there a concrete reason for this difference in quality?

(btw, i'm european and find american shows like mad men and game of thrones just to name a couple really excellent tv shows so this isn't me trying to poopoo american culture and tv)
posted by canned polar bear to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
also they constantly show what's going to happen in the next few minutes in mini previews throughout the show.
This is because advert breaks are more frequent in the U.S. (a pleasure you miss out on if you download).
posted by caek at 5:30 AM on August 18, 2011

I don't know of anything that happened with the production of the show, but the American version is definitely hewing much closer to a very predictable formula -- the Tearful Confession of Wrongs / Family Therapy, Everybody Hugs, Makeover Reveal. (Hardly any of the UK restaurants get major makeovers -- probably their budget is lower.) Which are all tropes borrowed from other reality TV / makeover shows -- which makes the show feel, generally, like a makeover show clone.
posted by Jeanne at 5:33 AM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

is there a concrete reason for this difference in quality?

It's hard to define "concrete" here. They're working from very different "reality show" templates to fit different audiences. The extensive recap/precap thing is common in other FOX primetime reality programming, where the intention is, as caek implies, to catch people flipping channels during the break. The sensationalism is also par for the course, but it also reflects the deliberate way in which Ramsay has been marketed by FOX to the US -- which, I'd assume, he's fine with, as long as the money rolls in.

I think this review sums it up: "When it comes to reality television, the American palate is apparently so jaded, its sensibilities so worn, that we need our matter not only predigested but slathered with ketchup and shoved straight down our throats." Even Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution for ABC heads in that direction, though it's more like the template of the network's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition than the grand guignol of FOX.
posted by holgate at 5:37 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

And while I don't like making broad cultural distinctions, I think it's clear that the people making primetime reality television in the US don't want ambiguity or subtlety getting anywhere near the screen. They've got a formula that seems to work with their audiences, and they're going to stick with it.
posted by holgate at 5:50 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like the UK version better, too, because the problem the restaurants have are a bit more varied and... moderate, I guess: Maybe the owner is incompetent, or a tool. Perhaps the head chef hates his job, or yells at everyone. Maybe on this episode, the staff needs training. Or it might be that the restaurant has a filthy kitchen, or just needs a new direction.

With the US version, every episode is the same: The owner is an incompetent tool, the head chef hates his job and yells at everyone, the staff needs training, and the restaurant has a filthy kitchen and needs a new direction. This wears thin rather quickly, and is exacerbated by the fact that at least half of the episodes seem to take place in downstate New York where everyone apparently yells all the time. (I live in Western New York; we don't yell as much, we just lose championship sporting events and eat lots of chicken wings)
posted by Jinkeez at 5:53 AM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Americans like to watch Gordon Ramsay shouting at people. (No judgment. I am one of those people.) Really, the first US exposure to him was Hell's Kitchen, so that's kind of what we expect.

Also, and this might be academic pop culture woo-woo, but he really uses a military-style management technique on the US version. Break them down, build them back up. Perhaps that's more appealing somehow to American audiences?

Don't forget the unfettered glee you get from watching his rage face after he eats something foul and then goes into the kitchen and finds a mummified family of rats in the deep fryer. Fake? Almost certainly. Hilarious? Indeed.
posted by sugarfish at 5:54 AM on August 18, 2011

Fox... and gordon ramsay selling out.
posted by TheBones at 6:02 AM on August 18, 2011

Like yourself, I prefer watching the UK version of Kitchen Nightmares. The shows here have a predictable formula thus I hardly watch any TV. For me, that isn't good because I like to unwind at home but I can't because the shows are just so fucking stupid. I wish TV could go back to the way it was. I feel like an old fart and I'm still in my 20's. This is how bad the state of art in any form is in American culture. Would love to see more how you guys do entertainment over there.

The quality of American work is more flash and glam with big guns to tell a menial story. We're built on superficiality instead of actual talent in our industry. So, if you notice across the board our quality of work is troubling, you'd guess right. Capitalism. We're trying to attract the most amount of viewers for our buck. A specific, unique show is too risky for networks to waste money on.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 6:04 AM on August 18, 2011

Unstated expectations of the target demographic. The goal is not to poll well with everyone - even former fans of the show. The goal is to poll well with the folks that watch the most television and spend the most on the products advertized during the commercials. Generally that means, grow the show based on the large markets like LA and NYC (and other large metropolitan areas) but dumb it down for the rest of America. The expectation that network television is anything other than a vehicle to sell you something or sell you to someone is slightly misguided.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:08 AM on August 18, 2011

I wonder whether certain US television formats are so terrible precisely because British television isn't - that is, US TV producers know that everyone who wants smarter SF/food programming/crime shows is already watching a lot of British product, thus it's riskier and more expensive to compete at that level, thus they don't really want to bother.
posted by Frowner at 6:13 AM on August 18, 2011

i'd like to perhaps broaden the question a bit (don't want to thread-sit but some answers have helped me focus my thoughts a bit). i realise i don't have alot of exposure to US reality TV but i have a huge exposure to normal US shows like the ones i mentioned in the original question. the UK version would, for me at least, seem to have more of a universal appeal than the US version in the same way that a good non-reality US tv show has universal appeal. what i can't seem to come to grips with is why the UK format was discarded in favor of the US format.
posted by canned polar bear at 6:18 AM on August 18, 2011

i prefer UK gordon ramsey to US gordon ramsey in basically everything he does. even anthony bourdain talked* about how ramsey just ratchets up the role he plays. every season is a little louder, and little more absurd.

i LOVED hells kitchen US - first season, second season, maybe some of the third? after that - it just got so tiring to hear him yell at incompetent chefs. i like to watch the show to learn stuff about running a line, prepping food, working under pressure - this is why i switched to top chef. there have been some stinker seasons, but by and large, there are actual chefs who know how to cook. no one fucks up boiling water. no one kicks trash cans or shatters dishes. really - my dream is for Tom Colicchio to go to the UK and film a british top chef - it'll have the more subdued production, and less of the "coming up next because we assume your attention span is so low you can't follow a 41 minute narrative" BS that plagues american television.

bourdain on Hell's Kitchen: There's no cooking. It's just a bunch of dimwits -- the lame, the halt and the delusional -- and [Gordon Ramsay] pretending to be angry. There's no suspense. None of these idiots would be qualified to work a Fryolator at a Chuck E. Cheese much less ever work in any Gordon Ramsay restaurant.

and on Kitchen Nightmares: I love [Gordon Ramsay]'s restaurants. I like him. I wish him well. If having to be a caricature of his former self is going to get him bazillions of dollars, then why not?

posted by nadawi at 6:23 AM on August 18, 2011

Just as a side note, this problem isn't US-specific. I once tried to watch an episode of The Biggest Loser here in Australia. There seemed to be more 'coming up next!' bits, flashbacks, cuts to videos of the contestants' home lives and attempts to create tension ("Your weight is..." cue ten seconds of anxious faces, ten seconds watching the absurdly slow scale calculate the weight, more anxious faces) than actual content.
posted by lovedbymarylane at 6:30 AM on August 18, 2011

I would love to see the UK format on TV in the US. Bourdain's comment is smug as hell, but since we have the two Nightmare shows to compare it does seem pretty clear that Ramsay is eager and willing to defer to network expectations for a buck. He either sold himself out or actually believes that US audiences are not sophisticated enough for something better.

It's too bad--in all his US shows in thewe have glimpses of what makes him so appealling but we never get the goods. Just the sneer. Can you imagine what a US Fox TV version of the F Word would look like?
posted by quarterframer at 6:34 AM on August 18, 2011

The UK show is more about food and less about personalities. I think probably in the US they decided that the potential market for people who actually care about the quality of restaurant food was too small to justify the budget of the show.
posted by empath at 6:35 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

"for instance when the owners/staff are shown the redesigned restaurant it feels like they're trying too hard to show enthusiasm."

As an American it usually doesn't read as fake to me; they may just be being American, who are typically more demonstrative with happy emotions. (When I was in college my school hosted a major conference on the Holocaust, including both academics and survivors, and the American students (who were generally studying the Holocaust) acting as guides for visiting scholars/survivors had to be reminded not to smile encouragingly when their foreign guest was discussing genocide, because not-Americans find it really offputting, while Americans tend to smile to show attentiveness and encouragement to keep talking. Speaking of Gordon Ramsay shows, Suzy on MasterChef was like the most over-the-top example ever of constantly smiling at inappropriate moments to show interest and enthusiasm. I wanted to shake her like all the time. Of course she also made over-the-top serious faces so I think she was just over-the-top in general.)

But there's less here's what happened/here's what's about to happen on the UK version, you say? May have to check it out!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:38 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

what i can't seem to come to grips with is why the UK format was discarded in favor of the US format.

Because the US audience, on the whole, is very different from the UK audience. Different market, different tastes, different approach.

You said you preferred the UK approach; so do I. I also prefer most UK programming in general. But I also know that when it comes to TV programming, my tastes are definitely an anomaly; people I trust greatly have tried to suggest I watch Two and A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory because they assure me that I will find it hysterical, but I tried and found them both really formulaic. And me recommending Doctor Who or Spaced to those people made them come back to me and say it confused them. The majority of the US audience has a particular taste that differs from the UK audience's, and the creators of the show knew that and catered to that audience.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:51 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also noticed that, after going through the UK version and starting to watch the US version, the UK version tends to focus much more on the restaurant and food, while the US version plays on the interpersonal relationship drama. I hate that.

As with Top Gear, the UK version is superior.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:01 AM on August 18, 2011

Gosh, I think it's more to do with Gordon Ramsay's time contraints and the size of the countries involved than with the respective TV cultures or the format.

Why, on US Kitchen Nightmares, does Gordon never seem to go out of the tri-state area? My suspicion is that because of the travel time involved, he spends less time with the restaurants, so everything goes to a very constrained formula in order to get the shooting done to schedule. He's not going to jump in a car for the 24-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, Arkansas over the course of several months.

With the UK version, he has the advantage of being in a populaion-dense country where it's just about possible to get anywhere in less than half a day, especially if flying is involved. And the highest concentration of restaurants is from the midlands of England south which doesn't even merit a plane trip. You'll notice he doesn't visit a hell of a lot of restaurants in, say, Anglesey or North Uist. (Not that there are many. But you know what I mean.)
posted by Cuppatea at 7:08 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

a very predictable formula -- the Tearful Confession of Wrongs / Family Therapy, Everybody Hugs, Makeover Reveal.

Don't forget the bizarre Community Service stunts. Maybe they don't do this anymore on the US version--I stopped watching after three or four episodes because it was just too damn pat. Between this show and Hell's Kitchen, I never understood rage-aholic Ramsey's huge popularity. It wasn't until I saw the British version where he dialed back the drama and seemed to really care about the food that I began to enjoy watching him.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:34 AM on August 18, 2011

A thing that I hate in the U.S. version is the cliche "reality television narrator voice," whereas in the U.K. version, it's Ramsey doing the narration. I think it really changes the tone of the show. I guess middle America might have trouble with an English voice throughout the program maybe.

I think the concrete reason why the U.S. version is so much more bland (which is funny to say, because the U.K. version, with its muted palette and no loud crazy sound effects and jarring background music, would seem bland to many Americans) is that expectations for reality TV in the U.S. are more about flash and bang than subtle story-telling.
posted by General Malaise at 7:36 AM on August 18, 2011

the UK version would... seem to have more of a universal appeal than the US version ... what i can't seem to come to grips with is why the UK format was discarded in favor of the US format.

Don't forget that it airs on Fox, Home of the Inexplicable Programming Fuckup.

PETER: Well, unfortunately, Lois, there's just no more room on the schedule. We've just got to accept the fact that Fox has to make room for terrific shows like Dark Angel; Titus; Undeclared; Action; That 80's Show; Wonderfalls; Fastlane; Andy Richter Controls the Universe; Skin; Girls Club; Cracking Up; The Pitts; Firefly; Get Real; FreakyLinks; Wanda At Large; Costello; The Lone Gunmen; A Minute With Stan Hooper; Normal, Ohio; Pasadena; Harsh Realm; Keen Eddie; The Street; American Embassy; Cedric the Entertainer; The Tick; Louie; and Greg the Bunny.

LOIS: Is there no hope?

PETER: Well, I suppose if all those shows go down the tubes, we might have a shot...

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:13 AM on August 18, 2011

Here's what I think, at least for the U.S., ad revenues are down. There's too many channels so the audience share is less. The difference in revenue between a good show and a crap one are so marginal or even nonexistent that it makes no sense to spend the money to make a good show. Plus, while the network may have a profitable show or two, they have a lot of airtime to fill. If they catch a few extra dollars for putting out a show less entertaining than someone juggling cats, then they win.
posted by amanda at 8:23 AM on August 18, 2011

Seconding General Malaise's comment regarding the "reality television narrator voice." It's the narrator and the overproduction of the US version that makes it seem so different from the UK version. I get the impression that Fox doesn't have a high enough opinion of its viewers' attention spans or ability to process what's going on without a constant running commentary.

Productionwise, it's the glitz that makes it seem fake. A restaurant owner slams the door and the camera "shakes." There are sound effects. There's the cheesy musical riffs. In the UK version, you just get to watch conversations without being told or cued as to how you should react to them as a viewer.
posted by Graygorey at 8:45 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with all that's been said about American "reality" shows following a formula, etc. But what I've also noticed from watching both US and UK Kitchen Nightmares (BBC America, woot!) is how much more comfortable and, well, at home Ramsey is in the UK. The first time I watched the UK version I became confused because Ramsey argued so naturally with the owner of a restaurant -- to the point that I thought, "wait a second, is that his brother or something?". After watching a couple more episodes and noticing the same thing (and realizing that he couldn't possibly have that many brothers) I came to the conclusion that this is in some ways a cultural issue. Gordon Ramsey coming in to an American's restaurant is probably going to be more intimidating than it would be to a Brit because (1) he's an "outsider" and the restaurant people might feel like they have to be on their best behavior, and (2) he's British, which to us Americans = classier and smarter and maybe more judgmental. On the American show the Americans are more likely to argue with each other than with Ramsey (though he will yell at them). On the UK version everyone argues liberally and seems to feel more "at home" with each other. I think this dynamic helps to make the UK show feel less forced than the American version.
posted by imalaowai at 9:13 PM on August 18, 2011

i realise i don't have alot of exposure to US reality TV but i have a huge exposure to normal US shows like the ones i mentioned in the original question...

find american shows like mad men and game of thrones just to name a couple really excellent tv shows

I'm not sure what other US shows you are exposed to, but these are *not* normal TV shows. They are cable network (AMC and HBO, respectively) shows, and they're the cream of the cable shows, which is why you've probably heard of them.

So... perhaps consider that your perception of 'normal' is not a representative sampling of standard US television programming.
posted by polexa at 1:22 AM on August 19, 2011

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