On its face, British chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign to inspire people to eat healthier ought to be no more controversial than first lady Michelle Obama’s educational efforts in the same arena. The requirements of TV, however, seek to render Oliver’s “Food Revolution” combative and suspenseful, populating it with characters more worthy of the title “Jamie Oliver’s Fat, Stupid, Grease-Lovin’ Americans.” Mostly, think of it as “To Sir, With Love” meets “Hell’s Kitchen,” while pushing a message that’s worth getting out, whatever one thinks of the messenger.
Oliver’s approach characterizes him as something less than a culinary Simon Cowell, but he’s clearly horrified by the practices he encounters at the school cafeteria in Huntington, W. Va., a rural area he invades because it has the reputation of being the fattest, least healthy region in the U.S. The conflict occurs early, when local radio guy Rod Willis dismisses Oliver as an outsider determined to force people to eat lettuce, and the chef privately derides the host as a “grumpy old git.”
Soon, Oliver has moved on to the local school, where the kids wolf down cheese-soaked breakfast pizza and other processed delights. Taking his campaign house to house, Oliver tells an overweight woman with tubby kids that their daily diet is “going to kill your children early,” which predictably yields tears.
Produced by a team that includes Ryan Seacrest and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’s” Craig Armstrong, “Food Revolution’s” high-minded ideals would be more convincing if the show didn’t appear so steadfastly determined to produce drama at every turn. At the end of Sunday’s post-“Desperate Housewives” preview — which should give the program a nice running start at its regular Friday timeslot — even Oliver breaks down, insisting that the local naysayers “don’t know why I’m here.”
Look, getting American kids off their butts and eating more fruit instead of fast food is a laudable goal — especially coming from a network owned by Disney, which has a vested commercial interest in little tykes that goes well beyond TV. For all that, though, one needn’t be a cynic to know precisely why Oliver is there — and that’s to try producing the zestiest reality show he can.