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Archive for Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A not-quite-so-good thing

Latest offering from Martha Stewart’s company falls flat

January 11, 2005

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The latest cooking show from Martha Stewart's company should have been a good thing. But it isn't, and fixing it should be at the top of the domestic diva's post-prison to-do list.

Since Stewart's legal troubles began, the folks at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. have struggled to define the company without its star and founder -- even distance themselves from her.

But with "Everyday Food," a public television spinoff of the company's successful magazine of the same name, they went too far.

Both the show and the magazine focus on worknight-friendly recipes that use common ingredients and easy prep. Gone is the perfectionism and fussiness that even before her legal troubles turned Stewart into a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Yet while the magazine retains the serene voice and lush visuals that define so many of the company's publications and programs, the new show feels rushed, awkward and a little shrill.

Maybe it's because the program was rushed onto the airwaves. After Stewart's conviction in March, her company said her television program, "Martha Stewart Living," would go on hiatus and plans to launch "Everyday Food" would be accelerated.

In fairness, remaking a company that so long hinged on one person can't be easy. And the goal of this program clearly was to create something not obviously tied to the Stewart brand (in fact, her name is mentioned only twice in the first episode, and then only in passing references to the company).

But the show feels like fat-free cheese tastes -- too much of what makes it good is gone. And I can't excuse this because it's not as though the company lacked a good model to follow.

When Everyday Food magazine debuted two years ago, Stewart's name was all over it. After her criminal trial dominated headlines last year, her name was scrubbed, but her spirit stuck.

That's why the magazine remains a quality publication; it still exudes Stewart's signature style -- a combination of soothing can-do kitchen enthusiasm and food photography that makes you want to lick the page.

John Barricelli is one of five hosts of "Everyday Food," a new
cooking show on PBS that is a spinoff of Martha Stewart Living
Omnimedia Inc.'s successful magazine of the same name.

John Barricelli is one of five hosts of "Everyday Food," a new cooking show on PBS that is a spinoff of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.'s successful magazine of the same name.

But little of that survived the adaptation to television.

The program (which lists Stewart as executive producer) features five mostly stilted hosts. Where is the Stewart demeanor that made even ridiculously difficult dishes seem simple? And why can't these folks do that for chicken enchiladas?

The opening credits show the hosts in scenes from their daily lives (with the kids, at a party ... ) -- laboriously reminding us that they're just like us. That misses the point. We watched Martha because she was so not like us.

And though the hosts seem knowledgeable and convey time-saving tips and appealing recipes, I was distracted by their sometimes inane chatter.

"I find it funny that there's actually three leaveners," John Barricelli says of the ingredients for an apple-cinnamon bundt cake in one episode. Really? Why? Funny ha-ha or funny strange? He doesn't elaborate.

The cast standout is Margot Olshan, whose other job is running the Stewart company's commissary. Compared to her co-hosts, she is strikingly at ease with the camera and channels some of Martha's spirit.

Sadly, in one of two the episodes provided to reviewers much of her screen time is wasted on a segment shot during a dinner party at her home. I learned that her friend opened a dance school, but little about cooking.

Speaking of location: Bring back Martha's kitchen. The company's previous cooking shows were set in a sumptuous country kitchen. Who wouldn't want to cook there? The "Everyday Food" set looks like a harshly lit upscale school cafeteria.

But it didn't have to be this way. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has a winning formula and a terrific magazine on which to base the program. Why deviate?

So what does Stewart have to do to cook up a better show when she's released in March? Start by culling the herd. Five hosts is three too many for a 30-minute program. I was out of breath just watching it.

And cut the improvised banter. It's fine for seasoned pros and naturals; this cast isn't. I'd rather host Sarah Carey talk less about growing up on a commune and more about what she's cooking (and "follow the package directions" just doesn't cut it).

It's enough to make you wish Stewart could get early release to rectify all this.

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