Something about TV made in quarantine has felt at times deflating. Late-night talk shows, for instance, have been attempting to stick to familiar rhythms that, absent audience reaction, hang somewhat awkwardly in the air; the delay over Zoom or equivalent hardly helps matters. “Saturday Night Live’s” attempt was notable more for the admirable ambition of trying to get the show made than for any particular flair; it was at its best when it bent to the moment with individual cast members doing their thing, but often seemed instead to be chasing the comic energy that can only really be generated in person, together. Many people are spending a great deal more time on Zoom than they might have ever found possible before, and it’s ultimately somewhat frustrating to wrap up an evening watching people try to gin up the spirit of real togetherness through technology when that’s what we’ve been doing all day long.
Which is why “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” which debuted earlier this month, has been such a surprising, load-lightening watch. The Food Network show is not really about learning to cook and it’s not at all about bridging the gaps between its on-air talent using technology; Schumer and her husband, the chef Chris Fischer, really are hunkered down in a house somewhere remote, and they really are doing something as prosaic as making food together, with Fischer doing a fair amount of the work and Schumer commentating while dicing a cucumber or having some wine. If other shows have tried to amp up a certain antic mugginess to cover for the fact that they’re being produced under logistical strain and during a terrible moment for the world, this series wears the entire situation lightly. It acknowledges, often literally, the stress of living in a world on hold but allows for the idea that pleasures — including togetherness, including taking time to make food with care and attention. For all that its title seems to root it in a sort of celebrity culture that’s in the process of falling away, “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook” is an elegantly, unfussily made document about learning to live, at least for a time, in a new world.
In the two episodes that have so far aired, Schumer announces an agenda — making breakfast, say, or sandwiches. Then Fischer will carry out most of the execution with a not-made-for-TV chef’s brusqueness (refusing, generally, to measure, or piling on onions to an unphotogenic degree knowing they’ll cook down), enlisting Schumer for sous-chef duties which she carries out with the mild grousing of someone unused to chores, but little in the way of A-lister attitude. We are not made to feel — as in the now-notorious Gal Gadot “Imagine” video — that Schumer considers us lucky to be seeing her life, or considers herself to be doing a favor.
Which maybe should come as no surprise, given that Schumer has never been a star whose game is positioning herself as better than her audience; she has a relentlessly one-of-us comic energy. (For that reason, even a phone call to similarly earthy Jennifer Lawrence plays charmingly here; the pair are allergic to the airs that have made other celebrities seem so alien and out-of-touch at this moment.) But even beyond Schumer’s natural, careerlong gift for frank empathy, she’s made a show that exists as a sort of diary of this time. It’s less that Schumer is meaningfully learning to cook, although she slices onions well, than that Schumer is surviving a lot more family time than she otherwise might, and is making do.
Various ingredients are replaced by less-ideal but actually available alternates; the food is prosaic and comfortable, intended to use up pantry staples and, sometimes, to remind Schumer and Fischer of foreign trips they once were able to take. The pair is hardly putting their relationship under the microscope, but their interactions can in moments have a sort of “pause two seconds, then respond” energy that may be familiar to couples coexisting in small space. And the visuals — shot by two remote cameras in the kitchen and a third held by Schumer’s live-in nanny, who is, refreshingly, depicted as a necessary part of the household — are static and not dazzlingly impressive.
But they’re not Zoom, with its graininess, its lag — and, crucially, its attempt to bring together people who are not and cannot be. This series is about making the best of what’s around, even if it’s not what you particularly care to do or thought, three months prior, you’d be doing. Schumer is not a cook and not becoming one fast, but she’ll give it a try, and try, with a spirit movingly more familiar from history books than from contemporary celebrity culture, to make it bearable. She’s not telling as many jokes as one might expect, but, trapped somewhere in the woods and forced to cook her way out of boredom and towards connection with her husband as well as an audience stuck in their own quarantines, Amy Schumer is perhaps the most good-humored star of this challenging moment.