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Smoke Signals: 'Pitmasters,' low and (too) slow

Like football, barbecue is a sport seemingly made for television. It’s outdoors. It’s fiercely competitive. And success often depends on how well you handle the pigskin. Well, technically, the shoulder or even the whole hog.

Yet with this Thursday’s finale of the second season of TLC’s "BBQ Pitmasters," the drama runs higher in the ‘cue-o-sphere than on the screen.

The first season, which aired last winter, was a docudrama that followed teams on the barbecue contest circuit. That concept was ditched in favor of a "Top Chef"-like weekly competition among teams, the winner determined by a three-judge panel. The grand champion, which will be announced on Thursday, wins $100,000.

The anticipation during this final week isn’t so much over who is going to take home the purse (the show hasn’t generated enough heat for that) but about whether the show will return for a third season in its revamped form.

“Good Smokin’ Luck,” as the show’s moderator, Kevin Roberts, likes to say.

The ‘cue-noscenti have slammed the program’s makeover, criticizing everything from taking the focus off of sanctioned competitions to the inclusion of gimmicky surprise challenges. Indeed, the out-of-nowhere demand to barbecue alligator, rattlesnake and catfish is both downright silly and even a little patronizing. It’s easy to conjure the meeting of the show’s “creatives":

“Barbecue is Southern, right? So, the surprises have to be Southern.”

“Hmmmm … Southern. Southern, Southern, Southern.”

“Got it! Alligator.”

“Yeah, and rattlesnake!”

“Terrific. Very good-ol’-boy.

“Nothing says barbecue like good-ol’-boy.”

High fives all around.

Never mind that, if anything, the trend in barbecue is more fancy Dan than Daisy Mae. The recently opened Fatty ‘Cue in, of all places, Brooklyn, is going where no barbecue has gone before: heritage pork ribs with smoked fish/palm syrup (whatever that is), anyone?

Rather than reinforce Southern stereotypes, how ‘bout going a little experimental? Require the contestants to try their hand at barbecuing, say, foie gras. Think I’m joking? Ever had smoked foie gras?

Well, me neither. But I’d rather try it than smoked alligator.

Last week, competitors had to barbecue a turducken, which is a turkey (tur) stuffed with duck (duck) stuffed with chicken (en). They called it the “Classic Meat Challenge,” but the Cajun bird creation isn’t on the barbecue radar screen.

The idea to expand BBQ Pitmasters beyond the competition circuit is fine. But if the show returns for a third season, one hopes it gets beyond stereotypes and gimmicks.

In his Huffington Post column, barbecue blogger (and former Washington Post wine critic) Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn makes several sensible suggestions. The show, he says, should provide more tips and techniques, make the judging blind, change the scoring so that contestants are not disqualified before the main course, and use more Alto-Shaams (temperature- and humidity-controlled boxes to help assure foods waiting to be judged don’t dry out). He also recommends getting better judges.

Personally, I like these particular judges. Myron Mixon, a competition legend, clearly knows barbecue. Chef Art Smith of Art and Soul knows food. And former football player and Dancing with the Stars alum Warren Sapp is an everyman who knows what he likes, and I like that. My only complaint is that, despite some minor disagreements, there are no fireworks. For a TV competition show, especially one in which the judges themselves in pre-show interviews hyped their arguments, the agreeableness makes for boring television. Don’t any of these guys have an inner Simon Cowell?

In addition, because shows like these depend on character development, "Pitmasters" might give us a little more back story. Granted, having to keep up with several people on each of four teams makes it tough, but highlight a little something about the leader of each team beyond their barbecue backgrounds to get us more emotionally engaged.

By tapping into barbecue mania, "BBQ Pitmasters" is onto something. The show just needs to figure out what it is.

-- Jim Shahin
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By Jim Shahin  | September 21, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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I've watched this program since it started. I must say, I like the first season, documentary version better. I learned more about the contestants and more about regional competition BBQ. The new "Top Chef" format isn't appealing to me. I don't get to know anything about the contestants or BBQ cooking itself. I stopped watching about 1/2 way thru the second season. I hope the go back to the first season format for the third season (if there is one).

Posted by: tbantug | September 22, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

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