Bradley Cooper has always managed to do more with lesser characters. On Alias, his ferrety energy kept Will from being a complete lovesick, noodle-y bore; on Jack and Bobby, he made his ethically challenged TA worth rooting for. Even as a complete jerk in Wedding Crashers, he was confoundingly likable.
Cooper’s fixer-upper skills will serve him well in Fox’s Kitchen Confidential, since the series — based on the memoir of star chef Anthony Bourdain (Cooper’s character is rechristened Jack Bourdain) — begins after the most dramatic stuff has already happened: At one point, Jack was the hottest chef in Manhattan, but he blew it on drugs and women. Now sober, he’s condemned to ladling pasta in Little Italy. Out of the blue he gets a call from Pino (guest star Frank Langella), the owner of Nolita, a swank eatery in need of a head chef — pronto. In swoops Jack, who begins assembling his crack team, including Seth Richman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nicholas Brendon), ”pastry chef extraordinaire.” We know he’s a pastry chef extraordinaire because helpful superteam-style dossiers appear for each one of Jack’s hires. See, Kitchen, whose exec producer is Darren Star, suffers from the same over-quirkiness that plagued Star’s Sex and the City in its first year. In addition to the dossiers, Kitchen uses multiple flashbacks and Jack’s first-person narration, spoken straight to the camera.
In the case of Sex, the bells and whistles were extraneous, and quickly scotched. In Kitchen, one worries that they are a necessary distraction — strip them away and you’re left with the gaggle of stereotypes who crowd Nolita. Former model Jaime King trots and pouts her way through a clichéd dumb-blonde role as Nolita’s hostess; Freaks and Geeks’ John Francis Daley plays Jim, a naive trainee from Utah who yelps ”Jiminy!” with such overdone chasteness he might as well be dribbling hayseeds down the front of his jacket. In this Cheers-lite sitcom, Daley is clearly meant to be the Woody to Cooper’s Sam, just as Bonnie Somerville is the acerbic, smarter-than-thou, Diane-esque waitress who wants to see Jack fail — she’s the owner’s daughter to boot. (Friends fans will be mesmerized by Somerville’s cadence, which is eerily similar to Courteney Cox’s — a coincidence that’s even more striking since Somerville spent a better part of a season on the NBC comedy.)
These characters may find their niche, and certainly Cooper can keep us entertained for a few more shows through sheer quick-witted charisma. But the pilot, which features a bitter food critic, a bevy of drunk bachelorette-party girls, and a chopped-off fingertip, still somehow manages to drag (the thoroughly unbelievable ending doesn’t help). Only a few scenes capture the swagger and passion that made Bourdain’s memoir so enthralling. When Jack lambastes-slash-charms his waitstaff while demanding they respect a massive fish that he’s named Greg, Kitchen starts humming. The series needs more of these moments. Too often, Jack is cowed, nervous, or stuck playing straight man to his more rakish staff. It’s fine to have a bad-boy-gone-good…as long as he’s not too good.