Hell's Kitchen vs Shark Tank: The Difference Between Good and Great Reality TV

So the 9th season of Fox’s cooking competition reality show Hell’s Kitchen started this week with the first two episodes airing on Monday and Tuesday night. It’s been a couple years since The Wife and I have made a point to work the show into our entertainment routine. But given that we caught it just starting we decided to follow it again this season.

The first two episodes were entertaining and suspenseful as the first few in each season usually are. In particular I always enjoy the standard opening challenge in which the 18 chefs are each instructed to make their signature dish for the show’s host, the intimidating, ultra-badass Chef Gordon Ramsay. It’s great entertainment to see hot-shot cooks horrified as Ramsay spits their food from his mouth only to end up praising the great work of other more humble chefs. Ramsay may have a reputation for being overly mean and sometimes even abusive (though we have to remember it’s played up for the camera) but no one ever seems to point out his harshness for failure only increases the significance when he finds a contestant who’s created a delicious dish. Because we know of Ramsay’s high standards we know that when he puts a piece of food on a pedestal then the chef has really done something significant.

There’s also genuine tension in the competitions. In the second episode the first team challenge was to see which team could cook meat to the proper temperatures. Contestants were put into pairs and each duo had to cook four cuts: one medium-rare, one medium, one medium-well, and one well-done. If they didn’t hit the meat at the right level then they wouldn’t get the point. For the whole competition it was anyone’s game right up to the moment Chef Ramsay sliced open the last well-done hamburger. (Because the show is so entertaining I’ll suspend my disbelief that any chef good enough to rise to the level they’re already at could be so incompetent at such a basic cooking skill.)

I’ll watch Hell’s Kitchen and enjoy it but throughout the show the reason why it never secured a permanent spot in April and my entertainment routine is pretty clear: for the most part the contestants on these shows just are not very likable. Most of them are petty, vindictive, and childish. Thus it’s not always easy to spend time with them when they’re not in a competition setting. It’s difficult to find someone to actually root for consistently — aside from Ramsay himself. And drama can only function so well when there isn’t an underdog who earns our empathy.

Another, better reality show that doesn’t have this problem is ABC’s Shark Tank, the American version of the addictive British show Dragons’ Den. For Shark Tank there’s rarely any ambiguity about who should earn the viewer’s sympathy. Each episode features five segments of entrepreneurs or inventors pitching their businesses to a panel of five multi-millionaire venture capitalists. In each pitch the viewer has no difficulty figuring out who deserves their sympathy. We know within minutes of each pitch whether we’re going to live vicariously through the entrepreneur or the dragon.

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For some pitches the entrepreneur themselves is likable and competent and their business sounds like a great idea. We invest our hopes in them and feel the great joy that comes to them when they secure a partnership with one of the sharks that will transform them from a life of penny-pinching to wealth and success. Other pitches allow us to live vicariously through the dragons. Many an entrepreneur will waltz onto the show with a cocky attitude and an embarrassing product that no one in their right mind would ever waste their money developing. In these scenarios the satisfaction comes from watching the Sharks rip into the hot shot and bring him back down to earth. (For an example see the clip below — in this case the product and the business is actually pretty good but his evaluation is way off.)

Shark Tank is more successful not just because it’s easier to establish a relationship with the characters but also because the stakes are much higher. Each season of Hell’s Kitchen takes 15 episodes to do once what Shark Tank can do five times in one show. There will be a single winner at the end of Hell’s Kitchen who will earn the grand prize of being the new head chef in Ramsay’s next restaurant. And while the $250K, peak-of-one’s-career position is desirable, it pales in comparison to the fortune that can be made after one secures a deal with the Sharks. Those “prizes” often have the potential to be worth tens of millions of dollars. They’re not just handed out, though. The winners in each deal aren’t just the entrepreneurs dropping by the Tank but the Sharks themselves and the viewers. Many a time watching Shark Tank and Dragons’ Den The Wife and I would end up rooting for entrepreneurs because the product or service was something that we wanted to purchase ourselves. Through one of these millionaire Sharks partnering with an entrepreneur the viewer is actually winning too. The more new businesses are created the higher all of our quality of life will be. (Of course our president The Great Deep Thinker isn’t helping when he suggests that the wealth of these investors is something that they don’t actually “need.”)

There’s been a lot of good discussion lately about the coming collapse of both the traditional Hollywood establishment and the political ideology of Hollywood Leftism embedded within it. Ed Driscoll had a top notch post here at PJ Lifestyle yesterday. (I came it from a different angle in the conclusion of my Hollywood Revolt series at Big Hollywood here.) As the Hollywood Left’s powerbase begins to crumble with the exponential growth of technology shattering their monopoly the opportunities will manifest for conservatives to emerge with entertaining properties of their own. So far we’re seeing mixed results here and Ben Shapiro explains why in his recent interview with Ed (which you should really make a point to listen to):


Scripts (and all entertainments for that matter) cannot be conservative first and entertaining second. When they are they don’t work. Conservatives cannot think, “Well I’m going to do what the Left does and make movies to further the Tea Party’s agenda.” #FAIL.

The path to nourishing the culture is not through politicized entertainment but rather through quality entertainment. Make a show with characters that are likable and admirable and viewers will watch it and it will inspire them to be better people. Make a show that values and promotes competition and rewards those who work hard to create extraordinary things for the rest of us. Then you’ll be making a political point and advocating for conservative values without ever mentioning politics or in any way alienating the great mass of squishy, apolitical moderates. I can’t teach my barely-political, Jon Stewart-adoring friends about how the American Idea works by just throwing Thomas Sowell books at them. But it’s easy to turn on Shark Tank and enjoy an hour of quality TV with my friends before asking them, “So these greedy, fat cat investors making people’s dreams come true… they don’t ‘need’ to have so much money to start up these businesses do they? The 50K invested in this entrepreneur would have done much more good subsidizing the 99th week of somebody’s unemployment insurance, right?”

Bonus: Read my very first article for a conservative publication in which I began to negotiate the terms of my surrender from the Left. It’s a review of Dragons’ Den at FrontPage Magazine and I wrote it in December of 2008.