Each week we take a quick, cautious look at what is going on with televised cooking. This week: Sweet Genius, a one-hour show about lollipops and death, Thursdays at 10 p.m. on the Food Network.
Oh, hell. It's come to this.
The Food Network sees pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel with his evil bald head and crafts a show around it. The premise is solid: An evil genius on a spaceship orbiting Phobos forces chefs to make desserts using surprise ingredients secreted by a caged Gorgon; the losers are ejected into deep space to quietly asphyxiate while the winner receives one million dollars and is fed to the Gorgon. YOUR MOVE MICHAEL CHIARELLO.
Unfortunately, the Food Network was only able to afford one big, evil button and then, for the winner, something like ten bucks. But, what a button. That button saves the show. It's as big as a cake and lights up like a three-layer Stick N' Click.
But Sweet Genius is not just about what the button looks like but what it does when the evil genius Ben-Israel leans over, giggling at what a fun turn his career seems to have taken, and presses it, setting into motion a conveyor belt that conveys the surprise ingredients.
A conveyor belt on a cooking show is like a big sign that screams, QUALITY SHOW RIGHT HERE. On the conveyor belt are curious things, like Otter Pops or streptococcus for the "ingredients" and bowling balls and toilet assemblies for the "theme," seemingly picked on the fly by an intern that morning during an elevator ride at Food Network HQ. Actually, that's exactly how they are picked.
The chef-prisoners then incorporate the stuff into their deserts, usually at the last minute, via liquid nitrogen, hot oil, or hammer. Unfortunately, monomaniacal Ben-Israel is also monosyllabic. Walking around the spaceship, he says things like, "You are cooking something" and "This is sugar" and "chocolate."
The producers would like the contestants to be scared shitless by Ben-Israel, but they just look weirded out. During judging, Ben-Israel says nondescript things like, "Rich. Sweet. Hello. Warm," which seem neither good nor bad, leaving the chefs to pantomime "What the fuck is it with this show?" to producers in the wings.
The sad fact is that Ben-Israel -- despite such promising visuals as a severely bald head, reptilian smile, black eyeliner (?!), and the almost childlike joy he takes in depressing the button -- does not do much of anything interesting. He doesn't scream like Ramsey, scoff like Colicchio, cry like DiSpirito, mope like Oliver, or quietly seethe like De Laurentiis.
The main problem is that he is not nearly evil enough. In the episode "Fiery Genius," one chef baked a cake in the microwave. Why not, you know what I mean? He had a good reason for microwaving a cake, saying, "I want to make it warm." That guy is a genius.
But Ben-Israel hadn't heard of this microwaving-a-cake method ("The cooking cake microwave I was aware not I," he said, more or less), and while the contestant swore up and down that nuking a cake was Michelin-approved, that chef failed to notice that the cake resembled a tuna casserole.
Chef Ramsey would have politely escorted him out back and shot him, but not Ben-Israel. He practically thanked the chef who, given 50 minutes to bake, played Hackey Sack for 49 minutes and microwaved a bowl of cake in the last 35 seconds. Ben-Israel merely sent him home with his odd tagline, something like, "You were not the one with the microwave cake who was the sweet genius," and after the contestants huddled up to figure out who exactly got kicked off -- Ben-Israel's diction seems to be an ongoing but eminently interesting issue -- he got sucked towards toward Neptune.
Sweet Genius will likely continue, unless the Food Network stops to think about it for a moment, so one hopes that Ben-Israel starts to string some better words together and get angry. I for one would enjoy seeing someone regularly getting mad at desserts. If someone is spreading cheese doodles and corn death fungus on a cake, then all hell should be breaking loose, not putting me to sleep.