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How Far Has Food Imperialism Gone in TV and Film?

food television
food television
Flickr/Mike Licht

Yesterday, the news came that NBC has greenlit a show starring Mary-Louise Parker called Feed Me. The sitcom will revolve around a close-knit family that runs a restaurant. It's the most recent in a string of food-focused TV shows and movies that move away from the format of cooking shows and reality competitions and into scripted entertainment. 

While bars and restaurants have long provided the backdrop for many TV shows, food and drink hasn't actually played a major part in the personality or plot of many shows, beyond The Simpson's Duff Beer or the cupcake backdrop of Two Broke Girls. But with Feed Me, you get the sense that TV executives are trying to capitalize on America's current food obsession, and perhaps the flavors themselves will be part of the focus of the plot. 

Of course, Feed Me isn't the first news of food creeping ever more forcefully into our scripted entertainment. Back in September, it was announced that NBC had bought another comedy about a teen chef, inspired by L.A.'s own Flynn McGarry. Magnolia Pictures is about to release a film called Tasting Menu, which centers around the final dinner service at "one of the greatest restaurants in the world." 

Tomorrow night, Jon Favreau's film Chef will premier at South by Southwest. The movie is the story of a down and out chef (Favreau) who starts a food truck. It appears the food theme isn't just a plot device: creative integrity and passion for food are major themes in the film. 

These are by no means the first movies of their kind. From Tampopo to Big Night to Babette's Feast to Like Water For Chocolate, food has long been a muse for filmmakers. But not so much with scripted television. And the cultural sea change towards food as a major form of entertainment means we're likely to only see more and more of these kinds of shows and films. 

The question is, will they work? The problem is, as with all food on television, you can't taste anything. For this exact reason, I sense a cultural shift away from cooking competition shows like Top Chef, which struggle under the added weight of the fact that the plot has to be the same, season after season. This isn't such an issue for shows like American Idol, because the competition's result - the performance - can actually be experienced by the audience. 

Food works as screen (and written) entertainment best when it stands for something more than just the unattainable flavors being shown. Anthony Bourdain has made an entire career out of food writing and TV that aims to foster understanding and reveal truths about world cultures through cuisine. All of the older movies mentioned above succeed because the food is a metaphor, for passion, for ambition, for love.

It's hard to see exactly how that kind of depth of storytelling will come across in a half hour sitcom, but it sure will be fun to see NBC and others try.  


Follow Besha Rodell on Twitter at @besharodellWant more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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