July 23, 2021

Crime Scene Kitchen was Too Flavorful

It’s the summertime, and that means it’s time for the broadcast networks to fill up their primetime slots with unscripted reality and game show content. It’s cheaper, and in these COVID times, easier to produce in a bubble. And because I’ve binged everything else, I found myself tuning in. 

Crime Scene Kitchen promo poster
This dessert does not appear in the show.
Source: imdb.com
Joel McHale brought his signature sarcasm to a new FOX show, hosting (and executive producing) Crime Scene Kitchen. If that title sounds like the height of gimmick to you, you’d be right. Here's how it works: Two mystery desserts are baked in the titular Kitchen each week, and teams of two are charged with using the clues they find there to identify and recreate them.

Like crumbs showing through the cracks of a hastily draped fondant, the ingredients that went into the recipe for Crime Scene Kitchen are clearly visible. Its format, style, and humor are sampled from other baking shows. 

The rounds are essentially a reinvention of the technical challenge from The Great British Bake Off (aka, The Great British Baking Show), wherein contestants are given ingredients and vague instructions and tasked to make the same dessert. The more glaring theft is CSK's “Showpiece” round, a clear rip off of Bake Off’s “Showstopper.” 

But not every dessert presented is a triumph. Because the teams occasionally get the clues very wrong, and also occasionally get it right, but do poorly, the show simultaneously tries to revel in the #fail like Nailed It!

Perhaps the subtlest of all CSK’s inspirations is the way it is stylized like a YouTube show. The production aspects of the show are lampshaded, as if to tell the audience, “we know you know how TV is made by now, so we’re all in on the joke, right?” This is largely thanks to host Joel McHale, who takes far too many opportunities to call for lighting cues and talk about how cool the set is. His joke calling the stand where the mystery dessert is revealed the “Confectionator 3000” should have died after its first telling, but no - it gets repeated every week.  The fact that one of the two judges, Yolanda Gampp, is (we’re repeatedly told) a Famous Youtube Pastry Chef is the frosting on this internet popularity cake.

The trouble is, none of these concepts complement each other. Every Bake-Off fan knows that the audience wants to see successes, not failures. And if we wanted to watch a YouTube show... well, we'd just watch YouTube. 

Gampp and her fellow judge, Michelin-starred chef Curtis Stone, make subjective judgments about which bakers win each challenge. On this show, being “Star Bake…” er, I mean, “Top Dessert Detective” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best baker, or even that you made the best dessert. It just means you got closest to the “mystery dessert.” And while many skills that reality competition contestants hone are not applicable in the real world, using clues in a meticulously staged kitchen to identify and reproduce a dessert seems particularly useless.

The final challenge of the finale episode threw the premise of the show in the trash, and let contestants build on a handful of ingredients to essentially make whatever sort of cake they wanted. Frustratingly, this new format quite obviously bent the competition in favor of the eventual winners. (The prize was $100,000, but also an engraved cake stand - now, where have I seen one of those?)

Selfie of Judges Curtis Stone, Yolanda Gampp, guest judge Ken Jeong, and host Joel McHale
Curtis Stone, Yolanda Gampp, and Joel McHale
pose with guest judge Ken Jeong.
Source: facebook.com 
This wasn’t the only surprise format change. About half the episodes included a celebrity guest judge, for some reason. There was near constant reinvention what constitutes a “clue” in the kitchen. Mystery too hard in the first couple of episodes? Add something more obvious - a list of potluck items and a coordinating name on a coffee cup will make it simpler. The show failed to copy Bake Off's trick of having the contestants and judges wear the same outfits on multiple days of filming, so exposition edited in after the fact was obvious. All of this made the whole show feel like somewhat of a work in progress.  I wonder if any play testing occurred before the game began filming? I'd bet not.

Because the show is aimed at the casual summer viewer who happens to tune in, it spends precious time constantly reiterating the premise of the show. All this wasted time is probably why only two challenges fit in each episode, and why the slate of contestants had to be split into two groups for the first six episodes. Perhaps the makers of Crime Scene Kitchen will have perfected the recipe of the show before filming a second season? The trophy cake stand optimistically read: "Season 1 Crime Scene Kitchen Champions."

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