Man vs. Food (S01E1-5)

Believe me, I was not planning on making this show part of my daily routine.

When I eat breakfast I usually watch 20 minutes or so of a movie, and lately they have been documentaries.  After tackling some pretty heavy stuff recently, I stumbled across this odd little gem of a show on the ol’ Netflix queue.  So far it’s pretty entertaining, kind of interesting, and best of all, each episode is almost exactly 20 minutes long–just enough time for me to chow down my Cheerios and OJ while, ironically, watching a guy chow down on lots and lots of food.

Adam Richman, about to take on one of the many food challenges in the show.

Adam Richman, about to take on one of the many food challenges on the show.

And really that’s the gist of the show:  Adam Richman, a low-profile actor and self-proclaimed food enthusiast, goes around the country (possibly the world, but not so much as of the time I’m writing this) looking for the best eating establishments, often with crazy food challenges, in whatever town or city he happens to be in.  It’s kind of an odd show for the Travel Channel, but I think they get away with it because the concept is based around Richman, well, traveling.  Each episode shows him visiting three restaurants in a given location (Amarillo, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; etc.) and chatting it up with the owners, cooks, and waiters about the dishes and specialties they serve.  The places are hole-in-the-wall joints that might not look like much on the outside, but cook up the stuff of local legend.

The climax of each episode has Richman tackling a legendary local food challenge like eating a 7-pound hamburger, 4.5-pound steak, six of the spiciest hot wings in town, and so on.  Sometimes he wins, sometimes he fails, but it’s always enjoyable to watch as he interacts with the wait staff and restaurant patrons on his way to winning the challenge and collecting that location’s ultimate trophy (usually a T-shirt, photo on the wall, or bumper sticker).  He will often talk with the manager or head cook of whatever restaurant he happens to be taking the challenge about what goes in to the preparation of the meal, and sometimes try his hand at cooking it up himself.

One of Richmans many food challenges.

No way would I ever try this.

I appreciate that the show isn’t just about one man’s journey of gluttony, but a real exploration of the culture and customs of a particular area of the country.  A visit to Columbus Ohio had Richman taking part in some pregame OSU football tailgating and visiting a generations-old sausage joint, not only for the food but to get a feel for the local community.  But for a show like this, with such a bare-bones concept, to work it must have one key ingredient:  a likable host.  And Richman fills that duty in spades.

In fact, one of the most compelling reasons for me to keep coming back to this show is to watch Richman interact with the other people around him.  His indelible charm is infectious, and he is clearly having a good time as he jokes around with the cooks and waiters.  Anton Ego he is most certainly not – he is just out to chow down on some grub, meet lots of interesting people, and hopefully get his name or photo on the wall after conquering a ginormous sandwich or beef brisket.  And while some have criticized the show for its positive portrayal of American overindulgence, I see it as harmless escapism.  Richman is eating the foods and taking the challenges so we don’t have to.  Though he sure does make it fun to watch.

Edit 1/19/10: Having finished watching Season 1 I have nothing substantive to add to this review, but wanted to reiterate how much I continued to enjoy the show.  Richman’s everyday-dude schtick never gets old, and I appreciate how complimentary and thoroughly positive he is to everyone around him:  the chefs, the waiters, the patrons, and even the viewers.  Even during the final episode of Season 1, when he was comparing Juicy Lucy hamburgers at competing restaurants, he had good things to say about both and managed to find a clever way of praising both without actually declaring a winner.  It’s vignettes like this that make the show as classy as it is greasy.

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