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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.