The first season of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution was my favorite new reality show of 2010 (and one of my favorite new series of the year altogether). As the British chef went on a crusade to improve the eating habits of a town and a school in West Virginia—finding resistance not just from the school system but townspeople who saw him as a cultural interloper—Revolution was both an editorial about diet and an impassioned story about the difficulty of change.
Season two, which premiered last night, takes on a much bigger target: the Los Angeles school system and the city generally. The debut episode featured some strong scenes, but I’m not sure it’s shaping up to be as strong or cohesive a story.
Much of what’s best about Revolution hasn’t changed. What makes Oliver a great advocate for his cause is that he doesn’t scold or condescend (he does lecture, but entertainingly): he just gets pissed off on our behalf. His essential attitude is that there’s no reason that we can’t eat better or feed our kids better, but also—and this is the key—there’s no reason any of us is not capable of understanding it. He talks to people on their level, meaning not just that he’s down to earth but that he has no patronizing impulse to sugarcoat anything if he thinks someone is full of it.
The problem, at least with the first episode, is a structural one: the L.A. school system refuses him access (a problem that’s been publicized in news reports), and this leaves him at loose ends. There are a lot of strong set pieces: Jamie takes over a burger joint, Jamie fulls a school bus with the amount of sugar used to sweeten school milk, Jamie demonstrates, disgustingly, how ammonia is used to extract “pink slime” from beef scraps to go into burger meat. It suggests what Food Revolution might be like if it were a different kind of show, one where Jamie traveled around giving different stunt demonstrations every week.
But without the school access, the show doesn’t have the arc, or the developing relationships that allowed the first season to give a holistic picture of the cultural and logistical problems with changing one’s diet. It’s just this thing and this thing and this thing. To be fair, the first episode does at least make Oliver’s fight to get into the schools into a meta-storyline itself, but it also contributes to a feeling that we’re still waiting for the show to really start.
Still, even a less-perfect Food Revolution is better than none, and if Oliver makes us feel his frustration in trying to get a bureaucracy to let him improve a school menu, that’s a statement in itself. If not wholly satisfying, at least it’s an appetizer.