Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elementary Suggestions for "Cutthroat Kitchen"

In the wake of the sad demise of "Sweet Genius" (I presume someone lawyered up after Chef Ron dropped one of their relatives into the pirahna tank for serving him NutraSweet, and he's gone into hiding), my new favorite cooking competition show is "Cutthroat Kitchen". It has the perfect deranged glee for someone of my dubious moral character; for those who haven't seen it, it takes the basic structure of "Chopped" (three rounds of competition, eliminating the worst chef each round) and adds the twist that chefs can sacrifice some of their potential winnings to sabotage the other contestants, during an auction-style preliminary before each round. The sabotages are designed by Alton Brown, the host of the show, and range from the irritating (take away your opponent's protein/starch, force your opponent to use a non-standard mixing vessel/heat source/tools) to the dementedly inspired (force your opponent to get all their ingredients for a birthday cake by opening gift-wrapped boxes, make your opponent cook breakfast in bed while lying in an actual bed, or the infamous "tiny kitchen" sabotage, which is pretty much what it sounds like).

The thing I like about this show, apart from the obvious humor value in watching someone try to cook while wearing a Chinese finger trap, is that there's game strategy involved on top of the cooking skills. A well-timed sabotage can derail even the best chef, and it's a lot of fun watching people try to figure out when to bid and when to risk getting stuck with something that can make their task a lot harder. (Oh, and it's also fun to watch the judges tasting each dish, since one of the rules is that the contestant can't tell the judge what they had to deal with. There are a lot of culinary buzzwords thrown around to disguise the fact that they had to make a sandwich with soggy bread and no meat.)

But that said, I think that some people could use a few tips. So, despite the fact that the crossover audience between "my blog" and "Cutthroat Kitchen contestants" is probably less than zero, here are my suggestions!

1. Remember that there are no winners in Rounds One and Two. "Cutthroat Kitchen", like "Chopped", is an elimination-based game. You aren't trying to make the best dish; you're trying to avoid making the worst dish. This is important in the first two rounds, where you have more than one person you can get in front of. Keep this in mind when bidding on and dishing out sabotages--a sabotage that affects two or three chefs isn't as big of a deal, because even if you get it, you're not any worse off than one or two other people. Likewise, as tempting as it is to stick it to the one person who's sabotage-free and getting an easy ride through to the next round, it's more important to look for the person who's already in the most trouble and hand them that metaphorical anchor. Your goal is to make one other person's task impossible, not to make everyone but yours hard.

2. Don't Splash Out Early If You Can Avoid It. One of the biggest factors that affects the final round is how much money is left on the table going into it. There are usually fewer sabotages at the end, but they tend to be game-changers, and having enough of a cash advantage that you can guarantee you won't get stuck with them is a pretty big deal. That means not shelling out ten grand in the first round for a sabotage, even if it's a really devastating one. Obviously, there are times you will have to break that rule--if a sabotage is a clear ticket to elimination, you're better off bidding on it in Round One than handing back all your money to Alton--but you really want to keep your powder dry for the final round if at all possible. (Especially because if the other person doesn't follow this rule, you'll be able to pick up the sabotages for cheap at the end, because they won't have the cash to gainsay you.)

3. Don't Get Cute. There is one thing I see on this show that always sends a chill of dread into the pit of my stomach (or a thrill up my spine, if it's a particularly irritating chef). It's when they decide to get "creative". The thing is, creativity is something that is forced on you by this show. The dishes are all traditional favorites with an obvious Platonic ideal form, and judges looking for that ideal. Every deviation is something they're marking off, and a lot of contestants have to deviate due to the sabotages. So given that, do not--and I mean do NOT--try to do your own personal "twist" on whatever the dish is. Don't decide to put blue cheese on your fish sandwich because it has such a unique flavor profile. Don't decide to splash cognac into your beef stroganoff because it's a variation on the dish that you champion at every opportunity. In short, do not mess around with a perfectly good recipe just because you want to be creative, because the judge is not looking for any more creativity than is absolutely necessitated by the format of the show.

4. Don't Panic In the Pantry. The other thing that always sends dread/thrills, delete where applicable, is watching someone run out of the pantry and say, "And then I realized I forgot the (sugar/mustard/pickles/salt/eggs/baking soda/other basic-but-essential ingredient)." Every time it happens, it's like those contestants gave their opponents a free sabotage good for them only. Keep the most important ingredients foremost in your head and make sure you get every single one. (And then, as Alton himself says, grab some sugar, flour and eggs, on the grounds that you can always make effective use of them.)

Keep all these things in mind...oh, and know how to cook and stuff...and you have a better chance of walking away a winner!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How Wrong Is This?

I was reading a bit about Scientology today, on account of a Gawker network article about someone who went in to take their personality test just to see what the results were. (Spoilers: She's a terrible person and she needs Scientology's help badly.) And one of the more disturbing articles I read was about Sea Org, the cultiest wing of the Scientology cult. This is the one where you have to sign a billion-year contract to join, and you work a hundred hours a week in exchange for room, board, and a small stipend that in no way shape or form equates to even minimum wage, and crucially for purposes of this post, you can't have kids. If you want to stay with Sea Org--and oh hey guess what, these are the levels of Scientology you don't leave unless you want your life to become an unending hell of harassment--you get an abortion (or convince your partner to get one, delete as applicable).

Now I should say that I come to this as pro-choice, but it's pretty clear that this is not a situation where "choice" is involved. Women are being coerced into getting abortions, which is the exact opposite of the pro-choice position. It is, however, in line with what the pro-life movement thinks that the pro-choice movement believes. Which is where I had my idea. My wonderful, awful idea.

Why not forward articles about this practice to Randall Terry's Operation: Rescue? It seems like a match made in heaven. A paranoid, litigious, secretive cult duking it out with a judgmental, tenacious, self-righteous cult. Worst-case scenario, every hour and dollar they spend on each other is time and money they don't spend making the rest of the world miserable. Best-case scenario, either Scientology gets protested into irrelevancy or Operation: Rescue gets sued out of existence. I really can't see a downside here.

Which is probably what they said right before the beginning of 'The Stand', but...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Breaking the Silence

OK, I'll admit, posting's been pretty light lately, but I just have to get this off my chest.

So Rod Stewart is presenting us, the listening audience, with a hypothetical scenario that IF "[we] want [his] body" AND "[we] think [he's] sexy" THEN "come on sugar, let [him] know". This, by its very nature, presupposes alternative scenarios under which we might want Rod Stewart's body while not, in any way, finding him sexy. And Rod Stewart is advising us that, should such a set of circumstances arise, he in no way, shape or form wishes to be informed.

WHY? Setting aside whether this is a likely event, why is Rod Stewart so worried about it? Is he convinced that someone who wants his body without being sexually aroused by it is likely to have intimacy issues in other areas, and he's trying to avoid such a relationship? Does he generally want to steer clear of loveless sex, finding it to be joyless and mechanical? Or is he possibly hinting at other, darker implications to the phrase "want my body"? Could he have fears of black-market organ-traffickers targeting him for their sinister schemes, or perhaps warding off demonic possession through the use of up-tempo music? I can no longer stand not knowing. I need answers, and maybe one of you can help.

(And before anyone brings it up, yes, I'm aware that there's also a potentially-implied scenario under which the listener might find Rod Stewart sexy but not want his body. This seems pretty self-explanatory to me, so I won't discuss it further here.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

One Thing I Hope to See From "Daredevil"

I was thinking the other day about the "Daredevil" TV mini-series that Marvel's planning, and while I'm trying not to put too many expectations onto anything forthcoming (on account of how I enjoy being pleasantly surprised a lot more than I enjoy complaining that such-and-such wasn't like I hoped it would be), I did come up with one thing I'm really, really hoping they do in the upcoming show.

Specifically, I'm hoping to see some really innovative fight choreography. Because Daredevil is almost utterly unique in one aspect--he's just about the only superhero I can think of who has three-hundred-sixty degree perception. Unlike Captain America or the Black Widow, he doesn't actually need to see you to fight. I think that over his training with Stick, he would have developed a totally unique fighting style, one that involved lots of things like reverse sweep kicks and shots with the elbows at enemies behind him. It would almost have some similarities to drunken fighting, in the sense that it would work very well against large numbers of enemies by inverting their expectations--he'd actively encourage people to think he'd left himself open to an attack from behind, only to elbow them in the teeth when they left themselves open to his attack.

I think that if they get a really good fight choreographer and involve them in the conceptualization of the fight scenes--not just "make it look cool", but make the combat an extension of the character--it could wind up really looking like something special, something unlike any other superhero movie fight scenes we've ever seen. I do hope for that. Even if I'll probably wind up complaining that it really wasn't like I hoped it would be.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The One Reason I'm Glad Firefly Didn't Get a Second Season

My roommate had "Shindig" on yesterday (for those of you who don't remember Firefly episodes by title, it's the one where Mal and Kaylee go to the fancy party and Mal winds up getting into a swordfight over Inara). It's a pretty good episode, because any episode with Badger is a good episode and Mal gets in a great line towards the end ("Mercy is the mark of a great man...and I'm pretty good. Well, I'm alright.") But watching it reminded me of something that bothered me about Firefly, and something I suspect would only have bothered me more as the series went on if it had gone on.

Specifically, it was the interactions between Mal and Inara. This episode had it worse than others, because it was a very Mal/Inara-centric episode, but it was there any time the series focused on these two characters. Namely, Mal had absolutely no respect for Inara as a person, despite the fact that he really wanted to sleep with her, and he treated her terribly. Really terribly. All the time. And the series wanted me to think it was cute.

"Shindig" had a perfect example. After Mal decked Atherton Wing, Inara's escort for the evening, he was put into quarters until the duel. Inara met him there and told him, in no uncertain terms, that his "defense" of her "honor" was unasked for and unwanted...and then proceeded to try to teach him the basics of surviving a swordfight anyway, because she wasn't mad enough at him to want to see him dead over it.

Mal's response: "They teach you that in whore academy?"

Inara's response: "You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You'll lay a man out for implying I'm a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face."

Mal's response: "I might not show respect to your job, but he didn't respect you. That's the difference. Inara, he doesn't even see you."

Now the problem here is obvious: Mal's line of reasoning was obvious self-justifying BS. Inara has never been portrayed as stupid, nor has she been portrayed as limited in her options through circumstance. She is never portrayed as being coerced into the role of Companion, either. (Which may be worth discussing another time, but for the moment, let's put "Companions can always choose their partners and are well-respected and never suffer social stigma for their work" deep down in the same Well of Uncomfortable Truths as "For a universe that's supposed to be half-Chinese, Firefly sure doesn't have any Asians.") Everything about the character suggests that her current lifestyle is an informed, intelligent choice. For Mal to say, "I don't respect your job, but I respect you," is patently and self-evidently false, because it implies that he doesn't respect her decisions or her ability to make them, but that this shouldn't in any way be taken as an insult. Which, pull the other one, it's got bells on.

The scene still works, primarily because both of the actors play it smarter than the script. But when you look for it, this kind of thing pops up all the time in the series. In "Out of Gas", when we see the characters' first meeting, one of Inara's baseline conditions for renting the shuttle is that he not come in uninvited. Every time Mal burst in on her, it wasn't a wacky neighbor intrusion like Kramer on Seinfeld. It was a deliberate violation of her explicitly-stated boundaries. That's not "cute", that's creepy and stalkerish.

Mal was possessive, he was controlling--he might not have been sleeping with her, but he was damn well going to carp and moan and complain and passive-aggressively punish her every time she slept with anyone else. He didn't respect her boundaries, he didn't respect her choices, and frankly, given that actions speak louder than words, he didn't respect her. And Inara knew it.

And the series was clearly trying to portray this as "cute", and bringing these two together as a couple. And call me crazy if you will, but I don't think that the showrunners were going to bring the two of them together by having Mal realize that he was not only out of touch with his culture's views on sex work, but that he was also being a possessive jerk who needed to grow up and respect Inara's boundaries, right to make decisions about her body, and decision-making abilities. No, I think it was more likely that Inara was going, at some point, to realize that her sex work was Hurting The Man She Loved and give it up in favor of heteronormative monogamy and slut-shaming. (As a message sent by the series, that is. I don't think that was going to be her new career path.)

It would have been a disaster. It would have retroactively made Inara stupid and Mal cruel, tossing out two interesting characters solely for the sake of a lousy OTP between two people who were, as they were then-currently written, disastrously bad for each other. It was much better to have her leave the way she said she was going to, so that at least Mal could stew in his entitled manchild BS for an undetermined period of time. So in that respect, as much as I loved the series, I'm glad Firefly was cancelled.

(And I'm also not sad about losing Tim Minear's planned episode where Inara kills a bunch of Reavers by tricking them into gang-raping her poisoned vagina. But that's another day's rant.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Thank You for Telling Me This

Here. Read this, accept it, internalize it. Believe it and try to be the kind of person who would stand with the person who wrote it. If you want to play Devil's Advocate with it, explain that #NotAllFans are like that, or suggest that maybe she's exaggerating because "you know how those people are about political correctness" it again and look for yourself in it.

And Ms. Jemisin...your comments are closed, quite sensibly under the circumstances, so I can't thank you for writing that speech on your blog. So I'll do it here. Thank you so much.