I'm going to wrap this feature up now, because American Inventor is done, I've dropped On The Lot from the rotation, and CBS dropped Pirate Master from its rotation. All that really remains are the two cooking shows, Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef; and even Hell's Kitchen will be done in about 10 days. I've enjoyed talking reality TV with the handful of you who watched along with me, and I appreciated the opportunity to flex my TV coverage muscles in preparation for the new A.V. Club feature launching next month.

I didn't want to leave reality TV behind without addressing the "reality vs. documentary" question I've been teasing since this project started, but I've been putting it off because I realized weeks ago that I didn't really have much to say. By and large, reality TV is phonier than documentaries in its human manipulation and editing tricks, but both forms are inherently phony, and as long as you're hip to the deception going in, there's no reason you can't enjoy the few moments of truth that each genre ekes out. At the least, I don't understand the end-of-culture-as-we-know-it hand-wringing of reality TV haters. I'll grant that there's something insidious about "celebreality" and MTV's "how to be a happy teenager" shows; but the most popular reality shows are essentially game shows, and I don't know many people who'd consider a game show emblematic of the breakdown of civilization. (But then again, maybe they would.)

Anyway, at their best, the blatant unreality of reality shows creates situations that otherwise wouldn't exist–or at least would never be caught on camera–and it can be instructive to watch how people react under pressure, or even just in strange-but-still-casual interactions. Even when they're playing to the camera and having their comments taken out of context, contestants on reality shows are revealing something of themselves, and they're giving us at home a chance to imagine how we'd behave under the same circumstances. And while that may be an invitation to smugness on the viewers' part, smugness can sometimes be as cathartic as laughter or tears.

Now, onto the remaining shows (plus a bonus show!):

Hell's Kitchen
I was out of town last week, so I've got two weeks' worth of HK to catch up on; though to be honest, once this show approaches endgame each season, it gets less interesting. (As opposed to most other reality contests, where the tension ratchets up as the field dwindles.) Part of the problem is that the Hell's Kitchen contestants never seem worthy of their ultimate prize, so it's hard to get excited about the final stages of the winning process: the merge, the "taking turns at the pass," and the ultimate restaurant-against-restaurant showdown that we'll be seeing in the two-part finale. Still there was some drama last week, with Josh getting sent home in the middle of service for continually pre-cooking risotto. (He didn't just get cut, he had a spoon thrown at him by Ramsay, who called him a "useless sack of shit.") And then there was dear Julia, finally dropped for being in over her head, but offered the chance to go to culinary school and come back to compete next year. A moving moment, though if I were Julia, I'd go to school and then get on with my life. That is, unless she's so enamored of the bidets in Las Vegas–she called the one in her suite "the booty cleaner," and noted that it "goes right to the spot!"–that she wants to take a second run at winning an in-name-only chef-ship there. This week, the surprising elimination of Jen has left us to root for either Rock, the marginally creative chef with anger management issues, or Bonnie, the banal chef who falls apart when she has to multitask. Whoever wins, I get the feeling will be seeing them on the American version of Kitchen Nightmares next season. (Speaking of KN, the third series, currently airing on BBC America, has been a corker, with unusual problems and unforgettable characters. They're rerunning frequently, so you've got plenty of chances to catch up. Watch it just to hear Ramsay ruefully declare, "That's the saddest main course I've ever seen in my life." He also appears shirtless at least once an episode, which freaks out my wife.)
Line Of (Last) Week:: "We're cooking for trendsetters! If it's Mariah, or if it's The Rock, I will pee my pants."

Who Wants To Be A Superhero?
I watched every sorry episode of the first season of this "Sci-Fi Original" last summer, marveling (no pun intended) at the garbled premise, which tests a bunch of would-be actors' ability to act heroic in contrived situations, often with the aid of post-production special effects. The "challenges" were generally confusing and capricious, asking the contestants to stay focused on the task at hand, yet chiding them if they stayed so focused that they failed to be friendly to pre-planted strangers. And all of this presided over by comics legend Stan Lee–or at least the head of Stan Lee, which apparently lives in a TV monitor and speaks in a halting voice that gives no indication that he's interacting with the contestants at all. Judging by the first episode of the second season, this year is going to up the ante in terms of physical and mental challenges, as well as in terms of video "enhancements." But I just can't put myself through it again, and since this blog-series is done, I don't have to. I confess though that I will miss the millionaire hero-pretender "Mr. Mitzvah," who does a solid Jackie Mason impression.
Line Of The Week:: "In our defense, we were running around yelling, 'Have you seen my nuts?'"

American Inventor
As I've mentioned before, I prefer the nuts-and-bolts, invention-development aspect of this show more than the corny pitches and teary human interest stuff, so I was in heaven last week with the special two-hour episode, which ran our six semi-finalists through the dream-crushing focus group process, followed-by the redemptive marketing-and-research process, ending with the wearying re-pitching and rejection process. (The highlight of the week was seeing the two old coots with their destined-for-QVC kitchen wrap dispenser get their comeuppance, after they lorded the popularity of their invention all over their fellow contestants, then tanked their final pitch.) This week's finale was a whole lot of nothing, even with the "surprise" appearance of corporate suits offering to help our three finalists work on their products–or at least, offering to allow them to talk about their products to some sure-to-be-dismissive R&D; folks back at the home office. What these contestants have won isn't the fulfillment of a dream, but an all-expenses paid five-day trip to a suburban office park. Well, except for one guy, our winner, the fireman whose Christmas tree fire-extinguisher netted him a million dollars, because the voters at home were apparently so captivated by his passion for "saving lives" that they failed to notice that his tree-topping sprinkler never consitently worked, and will likely be too prohibitively expensive for many folks to buy. (And how big a problem are Christmas tree fires every year anyway? That's a bit of research our winner wasn't asked to unearth.) I hope this show comes back next season, but I'm not holding my breath.
Line Of The Week:: "Curiosity killed the cat. A million dollars brought him back."

Top Chef
Last week's episode was a premature reunion show for the first five evictees and a select handful of former contestants. Entertaining enough, though since I've been reading all the TC blogs on the Bravo site, I feel like there aren't too many behind-the-scenes stories I don't know. Speaking of the blogs, this week Anthony Bourdain fills in for Tom Colicchio again, and has some unkind words for guest judge Rocco DiSpirito and for this week's frozen food challenge, which he apparently feels was an insult to the contestants' skills. I'll grant that the constant Bertolli-shilling–with everyone pointing out how innovative and tasty those frozen pouch-meals are–was a bit much, but the challenge itself was legitimately challenging, and required the chefs to think analytically as well as creatively. To that end, it was a joy to watch Tre and CJ, two of the brighter chefs, work together to break down the process of making frozen food. I've said it before (though I won't say it again, since this blog-series is kaput): One of things I like best about reality TV is watching talented people do well. And on the flipside, I like to watch arrogant people shoot themselves in the foot, as Hung did several times this episode, starting with his cocky approach to the "culinary bee," which had him strutting up to the table, identifying foods in a split-second, and then cockily walking away without waiting to hear if he was right or wrong. Which was all well and good, until he failed to even taste the celery seed in front of him, and misidentified it as anise. Then he got paired in the frozen food challenge with thick-headed Joey, who didn't listen to Hung's suggestion that they individually freeze the components of their dish and instead just glopped sauce on top of their tri-color corkscrew pasta–"the cheesiest pasta," according to rival Howie, who had his own troubles this week. When all was said in done, we got an extra fifteen minutes of judging and repercussions, during which we got ample opportunity to gaze upon perennial winner Casey, with her cute, Jennifer Aniston-style insouciance, and to contrast it with the "bulldog," Howie, who's making himself increasingly hard to cheer for with all his sniping and blame-placing. Howie could well have gone home this week, but instead the dishonor went to weepy Joey, because as Colicchio pointed out, he and Hung "couldn't sell free food."
Line Of The Week:: "Putting a bunch of bullshit on a plate does not make you a chef."