Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Restaurant and The X-Files TV reviews

* The Restaurant, TV 3
* The X-Files, RTE2

Published 27/02/2016 | 07:00

Welcome return: Country crooner Nathan Carter took part in TV3's 'The Restaurant' with chef Gary O'Hanlon
Welcome return: Country crooner Nathan Carter took part in TV3's 'The Restaurant' with chef Gary O'Hanlon

There was always something quite Celtic Tiger-ish about The Restaurant, wasn't there? Indeed, its broadcasting history mirrors that strange era almost exactly: it ran on RTE from 2001-2009, went into hiatus for the recession, and was resurrected by TV3 last year - just as the economic revival really kicked in and it was again socially acceptable to treat food as a dilettante-esque interest, rather than a biological necessity.

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I guess television reflects societal changes, and factual programmes are a fairly accurate representation of life as currently lived. So during the Tiger and (to a lesser extent) now, The Restaurant reflects the fact that most Irish people have some disposable income, and here's a few suggestions on how best to blow it.

This type of reality TV is aspirational, frothy, enthusiastic, self-centred and vaguely meaningless; perfect fare for an affluent society. It massages viewers' narcissism, appeals to the consumerist instinct for more, and promises a shortcut to social prestige.

That's a neutral comment, by the way; we don't judge. And The Restaurant is perfectly enjoyable, one of the better reality shows. It's the kind of clever idea one could imagine being sold off around the world: a celebrity cooks for a panel of food critics and room full of "civilians".

At its best, the potential for drama is ever-present, in the steamy kitchen or between critics. At worst, viewers can pick up a few new recipes.

Of course, it's also self-important, shallow and kind of ludicrous, encapsulating a society obsessed with social climbing, good taste and, for some bizarre reason, cooking. Rarely can so many big words and cerebral effort have been expended on something so elemental, so essential, so beyond "criticism", as food.

It speaks of a culture in which style is substance, image is paramount and, to quote Oscar, we know the price of everything and value of nothing.

I've often thought it would be funny to go on The Restaurant as guest chef and deliver a deliberately bad, terminally naff meal. Say, prawn cocktail for starters, fish fingers for main, Black Forest Gateau for dessert.

I wonder how the self-styled arbiters of taste would react? Actually, they'd probably think it hilariously ironic, a playful, subversive artistic statement.

The real irony, of course, is the notion of making an artistic statement through food in the first place. Again, though, let's skip the moral verdicts: The Restaurant remains good fun. In general, it seems to bring out the best in people, by contrast with most reality TV. (Not too nice, now: the celebs get cranky and cross and don't particularly like criticism… and nothing wrong with that).

Plus, people on The Restaurant are actually doing something practical, and working with people who do something practical. The staff are cheerful and solid, unpretentious but not uncreative.

This week's fourth of six episodes saw the likeable singer Nathan Carter joining the show's longstanding staff - Steven, Louise and Gary in the kitchen, John as maître d' - and longstanding critic, Tom Doorley.

TV3 have tweaked the format slightly. The show now runs for an hour, twice as long as the earlier version and, for me, twice as long as it needs to be. They've also moved venue, to Marco-Pierre White's Courtyard Bar and Grill in Donnybrook, and the celebrity chef with the double-barrelled name - and hair - is our second permanent judge.

They were joined by another chef, JP McMahon (hipster hairdo, lots of tattoos, one of those daft Mujahidin beards), and a number of customers - including a "food-blogging couple": the most hilarious description ever.

Interestingly, "regular" diners are often even more pompous and absurd in their pronouncements than the critics.

I laughed aloud when one of them pontificated on Nathan's dessert, "What is the relationship between the wagon wheel and cheesecake supposed to be?"

I laughed more when another guy moaned, "What am I supposed to do here?", spoon poised above the dessert, a look of endearing, childlike bafflement on his face.

Scenes like this make me wonder if The Restaurant isn't actually a very subtle satire on social mores. Either way, it's good to see the programme back - it shows we're all stinking rich again, right?

Another throwback to the past is The X-Files, which returned for a six-part 10th season/mini-series/sequel… oh, I don't know exactly.

What I do know is that watching the show, which ended this week, was slightly weird, and not in the way presumably intended by producers.

Some things have changed since The X-Files last aired in 2002. David Duchovny looks older, Gillian Anderson looks skinnier. The technology has been updated. And for once, they seemed to be following through on the "big conspiracy" storyline, instead of leaving it hang there, year after year, as The X-Files did from 1993 to, well, now.

In fact that was why I got disillusioned with the drama first time around, sometime in the late 1990s. I figured, they'll never resolve this - probably because it doesn't make a lick of sense anyway - and thus bid adieu to Mulder and Scully.

But nostalgia is a powerful force; I couldn't resist revisiting. This week's finale saw various plot strands coalesce: Scully's alien DNA, the Smoking Man, shadowy forces bent on world domination, fringe science, Roswell, conspiranoia a go-go. You know the drill.

There was something to do with the US population getting anthrax from a smallpox vaccination - I think - and something else about stem cells - I think - and only Scully could save the day as she was immune to this anthrax-smallpox-antpox-whatever, and…

And then it ended with a teeth-grindingly infuriating cliff-hanger: Mulder dying, Scully needing to find their son… and a goddamn alien ship arrives overhead. The end, just like that.

I should have known not to believe that this impossibly labyrinthine narrative would ever be satisfactorily closed off. I should have known the producers would let me down. As the show's old posters used to exhort, "Trust no one."

Ian O'Doherty is on leave

Irish Independent

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