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Chris Fuhrmeister

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Why Good Eats: The Return is so much more than a reboot

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Alton Brown Good Eats The Return
Alton Brown and the Tree-Based Syrup Authority on Good Eats: The Return

Photograph courtesy of the Food Network

Part cooking program, part classroom, and part community theater show, Good Eats was a game-changer for culinary television. Hosted by University of Georgia grad and Marietta resident Alton Brown, the series originally ran from 1999 to 2012, a time in which Brown rose from anonymity to food-world stardom. Unlike other Food Network personalities of the ’90s, Brown was not a celebrity chef. He was a graduate of film and culinary school. At a time when most food-focused series resembled live-action reading of cookbooks, Brown’s tutorials featured science and history lessons illustrated with puppets, props, theatrics, and parodies of his favorite movies and TV shows. Even viewers who would never step foot in a kitchen could be entertained.

In 2017, Brown announced here in Atlanta at Dragon Con that a new season of the show was in the works, and the first episodes of Good Eats: The Return aired on the Food Network just a few weeks ago on August 25.

As someone who grew up watching the original series, I didn’t realize how badly I missed it until I began watching the first episodes of The Return, and I’m not the only one. Fans have inundated Brown’s Twitter mentions with praise since the premiere. “The reaction, if we use social media as kind of a benchmark, then it’s unprecedented,” Brown told me recently in a phone interview. “It’s been very, very well received.”

Brown’s homecoming to the Good Eats kitchen comes during a notable peak of nostalgia culture in the U.S. Streaming services, movie theaters, and cable networks abound with reboots and remakes of favorites from the past few decades. New works routinely look back at a bygone time. (Hey there, Stranger Things.) Even sporting events have tapped into nostalgic vibes. Faced with daily doses of anxiety from their social media news feeds, many are desperate for the comfort of the familiar. And the reboot seems to be low-hanging fruit for a television executive. If the band can be brought back together, the viewers will come, too. More than 15 million people watched the premiere of Will & Grace’s ninth season in 2017, even though the show had been off the air since 2006.

Good Eats: The Return meets all the criteria of a modern reboot. But Brown was wary of this while writing and shooting new episodes.

“You have to be careful, because so many people will gush simply out of nostalgia, and nostalgia is such a powerful thing now, especially as the media world is so tumultuous,” Brown said. “What I’m looking for is for people [to say], Well, nostalgia aside, these are really good shows. We didn’t want to be just, Hey, we’re back, and you’re going to watch us because you’re nostalgic. No, we approached these [episodes] as if you’ve never seen this show before. You don’t know what this is, so we’re starting all over again from scratch.”

I’m among those glued to Twitter daily, experiencing every outrage, disaster, and nihilistic joke. I watch the same shows and movies over and over again on Netflix and Hulu. I am the rebooter’s target demographic. And I’ve enjoyed a few, but nothing has filled me with as much emotion as the return of Good Eats. Watching the first new episode, I couldn’t understand why this revival in particular resonated with me so much. But as I spoke with Brown, I began to figure it out.

Good Eats has always been a reflection of Brown himself. As the show’s host, he has never played a character, only a tweaked-for-TV avatar of himself. But in The Return, Brown reveals more of himself than perhaps he ever has. An episode showcasing shakshuka, a tomato and egg dish, opens with a scene in which Brown fidgets over a glass of whiskey while telling viewers about his father’s death.

“My old man died on the last day of sixth grade—mine, not his,” he says into the camera. “Back in those days, adults didn’t worry about the kids. They’d be like, Your life’s changed forever, go out and play!, like nothing had even happened.”

Alton Brown Good Eats The Return
Alton Brown gets serious on Good Eats: The Return.

Photograph courtesy of the Food Network

The somber clip is used to set up an episode that spoofs Casablanca, but that monologue is easily the most personal moment of the series. If Good Eats has always been a scripted comedy disguised as a cooking show, this is the series’ first venture into drama. I love shakshuka; I was interested in learning new techniques for preparing the dish, but after watching Brown reveal something so raw, I was wholly focused on his and guest star Alex Guarnaschelli’s acting. (The celebrity chef made a cameo because when she and Brown first met, they discovered their shared adoration of the Ingrid Bergman-Humphrey Bogart classic.) The episode carried gravity I had never before seen in Good Eats.

“When I wrote that, Elizabeth, my wife, read it,” Brown said. “She said, Wow, that’s kind of heavy. But it’s the truth. That actually happened. I think in the old days, I probably wouldn’t have had the . . . guts isn’t the word. I just wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have done that 10 years ago. I don’t even know if I would have done that five years ago.”

“I think in the past, I’ve been very guarded,” he continued. “You don’t want to get hurt. You don’t want to expose yourself too much. And in this particular story, it was just like, well, screw it. Who’s going to hurt me? Somebody can say they didn’t like it, somebody’s not going to watch it, I’ll get canceled. I can live with all those things. I just decided to be honest, be real. Maybe somebody will connect to it. Maybe somebody who wouldn’t have been into this [now] will because they heard something true. They heard something that touches them.”

Brown’s life has changed a lot since Good Eats ended in 2012, with both ups and downs. He divorced his wife, Deanna, an executive producer on the show, in 2015. He left his church. Last year, he married Elizabeth Ingram, an Atlanta interior designer. (The two met when Ingram took Brown on as a client to design his Marietta loft.) They adopted a rescue Boston terrier, Scabigail, who appears throughout the new Good Eats season.

The Good Eats set is different too. It is built on the bones of its predecessor—Brown has been using the same cooktop since 2001. The camera angles and basic structures mimic those of previous seasons. But Brown’s new show home, designed by Ingram, is darker, moodier, and more urban than the sunny, suburban set of yore. That portrait of a bowler hat hovering over a rotisserie chicken still hangs over the hearth, but beige paint, light-stained woods and a sandy brick fireplace have been replaced by rich wallpaper and dark trim, gold accents and trendy tile. (If you’ve eaten at Ford Fry’s Westside steakhouse Marcel, also designed by Ingram, you might recall that dining room’s motif when watching these episodes.) Where once there were residential windows looking out at a leafy lawn, there are now large industrial panes backed by a brick wall and alley.

“There’s some moodiness there, and that’s me,” Brown explains. But there are practical reasons for the darker set, too. “When you have a darker space to work in, it allows you to create more contrasts. Bright matters, meaning that if you’re in a darker space, we [can] do a lot of things now with lighting. We’ll bring up several different lighting cues in one shot. If the camera’s moving across the table, I may have a light moving with the camera, pointing at certain things. Having a slightly darker room is a powerful tool.”

Brown said he’d always planned to bring Good Eats back, but there was self-doubt when the time came. He is 57 now, and wondered if he possessed the stamina to pull off 13 new episodes.

“I’ve never had confidence problems, but I think that going into this, I had to make it where there were no excuses,” Brown said. “[I thought that] I’m probably only going to get one chance at making another 13 shows, and I don’t want anything to not be perfect.”

But Brown and his crew already are working on another season of Good Eats: Reloaded, in which they add inserts and updates to previously aired episodes. Producing these is more difficult than shooting entirely new installments because it requires the team to go “in with a scalpel and trying to Frankenstein something.” (But if Food Network wants a 16th season, Brown says he’s willing to oblige.)

Alton Brown Good Eats The Return
Behind the scenes on Good Eats: The Return

Photograph courtesy of the Food Network

After all, Brown’s professional career has been a series of challenges to find out what he can get away with: “I’m always looking for the water that’s a little too deep, a little over my head, as David Bowie used to talk about.” He acted as a sports commentator as the MC of Iron Chef: America, and Cutthroat Kitchen allowed him to play game-show host (he has no plans to film new episodes of that series). Brown went on a live tour across 140 cities, and it was so successful, he followed it up with another 140-city tour and plans to hit the road again for a farewell tour. Brown’s next wade into deep water will be a movie. He would not confirm a single detail other than: It’s happening. “That’s all I can say right now. That’s the next step.”

The thing about nostalgic content is: The whole idea is predicated on bringing something back. What happens when that happy memory is here again? A present reality doesn’t provide nearly as much comfort; Will & Grace ratings have steadily declined over two revival seasons, and the third will be its last. Relying on old feelings will only get you so far before the nostalgia feels empty.

“Nostalgia leads to sentimentality, and sentimentality makes me throw up,” Brown said. “It’s lazy, and it counts on nothing but old emotions. It’s the cheapest form of entertainment. It requires no imagination, no work. I despise it.”

Instead, The Return was meant to be not a reboot, not even really a continuation, but just a solid series of television. Brown pushes his boundaries further with his writing and directing and provides new information with his cooking. He gives viewers a closer glimpse at himself. “Reboots bank even more heavily on nostalgia and use it as a base to establish a newer level of quality,” he said. “Our whole thing was, if we’re going to do this again, it has to be the best shows we’ve ever made. There’s no jumping the shark. There’s no even seeing a shark in sight. This season will be the best Good Eats season that has ever existed. And it is, by a long shot.”

That, ultimately, is why I think the new episodes have resonated with me so much. They’re not doused in nostalgic fantasy that remembers the good old days. Seven years later, Brown and the Good Eats crew are not trying to recreate anything. They have matured, and they are moving forward.

“People do talk about the whole reboot of this, reboot of that,” Brown said. “And I keep thinking, this really isn’t a reboot. I think that the reason for that is, let’s face it, a lot of great people work on Good Eats, but the DNA of this stuff sprouts out of one human being. And that one human being hasn’t stopped. I’m still alive, I’m still kicking. So I haven’t rebooted, I just picked it up again.”

Reunited and it feels so good: Josef and Tata’s Atlanta meeting was a brief blast of nostalgia

Atlanta United Tata and Josef Martinez
Tata Martino and Josef Martínez hug during the MLS Cup last year.

Photograph courtesy of Atlanta United

How can the return of a man who spent such a short time in Atlanta, managing a soccer team that is so new, feel so nostalgic? Gerardo “Tata” Martino once again roamed the Mercedes-Benz Stadium sideline Wednesday night, leading the Mexico men’s national team to a 3-1 friendly win over Venezuela.

Anyone with a cable box or a Netflix account knows nostalgia is in right now. Film and television writers bring old characters back to center stage and capitalize on familiarity. Nick Carraway said you can’t repeat the past. Hollywood says of course you can.

Soccer United Marketing must like the idea. The arm of Major League Soccer that promotes MLS, the United States national team, and the Mexico national team set up Mexico-Venezuela at the Benz as El Tri prepares for the Concacaf Gold Cup and La Vinotinto readies for the Copa America. The game brought El Tata back to the city and stadium he called home for two years, a little less than six months after he managed Atlanta United to the MLS Cup title in the club’s sophomore season.

“There’s a lot of great memories,” Martino said, through an interpreter, at his pregame press conference Tuesday, “and it’s hard to detach myself and not have that connection with the people of the club and the city of Atlanta, having spent here two beautiful years.”

Despite his managerial resume—Barcelona, Argentina—Martino arrived in 2016 as an unknown to the majority of local residents. He built a roster to his acute specifications and brought this city its first big championship since the Braves won it all back in 1995. Hardly anyone thought MLS could succeed here, and Atlanta United proved almost everyone wrong. Fans showed up for that first loss to the New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and they did not stop coming. Martino’s electric brand of soccer, something never before seen in MLS, was the reason why.

Wednesday night’s game not only was a return, but a reunion. Josef Martínez, the 2018 MLS Most Valuable Player and star of Martino’s Atlanta teams, played the second half for Venezuela. Following recent Atlanta games, local reporters have asked Martínez about the matchup against his old manager and what it means to him. In the locker room after Atlanta’s 3-0 victory against Minnesota United on May 29, Martínez had to fight back tears.

“Tata gave me a lot,” he said through an interpreter, his voice breaking. “That’s why I get emotional, because aside from our coach, he was like a father.”

The night was layered with emotion for Martínez. He has said nothing is more important as a professional than playing for his national team. Martínez again spoke about this game in the aftermath of Atlanta’s 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire on June 1, and he acknowledged donning the Venezuela shirt at Mercedes-Benz Stadium would be a significant moment in his career.

“It’s going to be special because this is my home,” Martínez said. “So it’s going to be a little strange to put on a different jersey in this stadium, but to wear the national team jersey here, it means a lot.”

“And we have to enjoy this game, so I’m going to try to enjoy it. I hope the fans do as well. Memories last a lot longer than your career, so when you’re done playing and at the end of your career, these are the moments you look back on.”

Josef Martínez Venezuela
Martínez poses with the Venezuelan National team before a game last September.

Even the action on the field Wednesday was vintage. Mexico attacked in waves from the start, and it looked like a goal could come at any moment. But the progressive tactics left Martino’s team exposed, and Venezuela had its opportunities. In a throwback to so many Atlanta United games from 2017 and ’18, Venezuela scored first before Mexico buried the opposition with three goals of its own.

Last year, Martino became known in Atlanta for his fashion sense. He regularly wore a sweater tied around his neck and draped over his back on the sideline. The sweater was so iconic, it inspired a farewell tifo for the Five Stripes’ playoff game against New York City FC. “No todos los héroes usan capa, pero el nuestro sí,” the message read. “Not all heroes wear capes, but ours does.” Martínez’s great reverence for his manager meant that gesture was not enough.

“I think he gave this city a lot,” Martínez said after the Minnesota game. “Things that many important people haven’t done, and for that he deserves it and much more. Beyond the game, I hope people come and say goodbye to him like he deserves and welcome him like he deserves. I don’t think he had the best goodbye, even though he won a championship.”

A few minutes before kickoff Wednesday, Martino and Martínez shared a long embrace, exchanging words, smiles, and back slaps. Atlanta United Twitter melted into a puddle of feelings. After the game, Martino would not reveal what was said between the two.

Discussing this Venezuela team and its prospects at the Copa America Tuesday, Martino spoke with a straight face about manager Rafael Dudamel’s experience and the quality of players such as Tomás Rincón, Salomón Rondón, and Adalberto Peñaranda, all of whom play for top-division clubs in Europe. He noted Venezuela’s recent success against Argentina, an international power. Then, Martino paused and smiled.

“As for Josef, I don’t have much to say. I just love him.”

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