This week, the New York Times' Bill Carter, having gotten his paws on some research data, brought news of a three-way showdown on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Kitchen Nightmares (Fox) and Private Practice (ABC) had come in first and second in preseason polls ranking the shows viewers definitely intended to view, with NBC's Bionic Woman, which has already earned this column's devotion, coming in third. It's hard to conceive of the coach potato with a passion for all three programs, and if a creature with such a catholic interest in the tube exists, then surely he's got a black belt in TiVo. Still, we wondered: Isn't there room, in the new age of digital recorders and downloaded episodes, to practice the bygone art of channel-flipping? What would it be like to toggle between Fox's hard-edged hospitality procedural and ABC's soft-focus medical drama?
Private Practice, as a spinoff of the gooey Grey's Anatomy, answers to that most loathsome of jargonized genre descriptors. It's a "dramedy" combining soapy bits of bedroom farce with New Age playlets about love and death. The first regular episode followed last spring's two-hour pilot, and its initial moments caught Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) reminding the audience about her wacky new co-workers at a wellness clinic in Santa Monica. These are physicians in need of sexual healing: the pediatrician who lurches into sadomasochistic one-night stands, the shrink on the edge of stalking her ex. Addison, whose opening speech mentioned a desire to throw her hat in the air, will be their Mary Tyler Moore-as-Mary Richards. When Private Practice is in drama mode, we're meant to pray she's gonna make it after all, and when its adolescent sex drive kicks in, we're supposed to hope she's simply gonna make it.
Over on Kitchen Nightmares, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was beginning to tap into his famous capacity for outrage. Watching Ramsay's other Fox reality show, Hell's Kitchen, is rather like watching Top Chef while being verbally abused. In a variation on this formula, watching Kitchen Nightmares is like flipping between a makeover show and Fear Factor while the couple upstairs has an hour-long fight. On each installment of Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay parachutes into some toxic pub or money-hemorrhaging bistro and rehabilitates it in seven days, a process that generally involves revamping the menu, traumatizing the manager, and swearing at everyone very loudly. When I clicked over, Ramsay was wrinkling his face at a Manhattan joint that nominally specialized in Indian food and in fact offered fare from six or seven continents on its novella-length menu. The owner was estimating his losses at $30,000 a month. A few flies were sauntering across the tabletops, and the production team had boosted the insect buzz so that it sounded like the Luftwaffe was strafing the place.
Dipping back into Private Practice, I decided that these sound effects were fairly subtle. In the first of the night's story line, we met a gentleman of a certain age and his younger lady friend, patients who'd come into the clinic to get going with artificial insemination. When the fellow suffered a fatal stroke while attempting to fulfill his end of the deal, the paramour was distraught but undeterred. "I want his sperm," she demanded. "I want his sperm now!" Commercial.
On Fox, Gordon was meeting more of our six-legged friends in the kitchen and busboys were marinating chicken Marsala on the floor. The wife and I were, like good Americans, eating dinner in front of the television and now discovering Kitchen Nightmares to be incompatible with our needs.
It is no wonder that DiGiorno Pizza had preferred to buy time on Private Practice, where, 16 minutes into the action, the opening credits still rolled. (The action proceeds at a gentle trot, which helps to render the characters' collective frenzy more tolerable.) The credits informed us that Moon Zappa, nee Moon Unit Zappa, had a role in the evening's production. Soon enough, we saw Zappa portraying a patient of Addison's psychiatrist colleague. Her character obsessively counted floor tiles in a department store. A cutesy excursion into pathology of loss was under way.
In the meantime, Kitchen Nightmares had grown more nightmarish, with Ramsay unearthing rotten peppers and rancid salad and the sound team now betraying a weakness for Bernard Herrmann violins. On Private Practice, the dialogue was comparably stale—"I'll sue you so fast your head will spin"—and it looked as if Addison, an ob-gyn, would have to perform a Caesarean on a patient whose heart had failed. Ramsay beat her into a mask, though, suiting up to steam clean the restaurant, at which point the Kitchen Nightmares score came fabulously close to plagiarizing Ray Parker Jr.'s theme for Ghostbusters. Back to Addison, who had a scalpel in hand and—this is the saving grace of Private Practice—a glimmer in her Bette Davis eyes. "I'm gonna cut her on three," she said. "One … two …" Commercial.
"The old menu has been replaced with classic Indian dishes that have a modern twist," Fox's narrator intoned. The waitresses beamed with a fresh sense of possibility. Ramsay was down to spurting merely two or three cuss words per sentence. The audience had been set up for something like a false epiphany. While there's more room for variety in the Kitchen Nightmare formula than you might expect, it's a dramatic necessity that, about two-thirds of the way into each episode, the producers sweep the rug out from under us. Despite Ramsay's overhaul—that is, because of it—the first post-makeover dinner service emerges as a disaster revealing new levels of ineptitude. Thus, the customers grumblingly wondered about the whereabouts of their naan, and the big picture looked more dreadful than ever.
Private Practice was treating its audience to a similar reversal. Addison had delivered the baby safely, but the mother was still in rough shape. Out came a needle to stitch up after the C-section and defibrillator paddles to jump-start the patient's heart. Out came a syrupy ballad that triggered a Lilith Fair flashback.
The two shows achieved simultaneous climax. In New York, Ramsay ironed out the restaurant's remaining kinks—he apparently just need to terrify everyone a bit more—and the narrator declared his mission accomplished. In Santa Monica, every resolution fell into place with greeting-card simplicity, and Addison barged her way into the hearts of her new co-workers with a swelling monologue: "I'm a world-class neonatal surgeon, and I'm here to stay." I don't doubt it. There's room enough in prime time for both the twinkling dippiness of Private Practice and the pulsing aggression of Kitchen Nightmares. They speak to different passions at the same fairy-tale pace.