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Stale ingredients spoil PBS's 'Cooking'

PBS is selling its new reality series, ''Cooking Under Fire," as ''reality TV that feeds your brain." That's like Fox promoting ''American Idol" as a graduate course in democracy and capitalism, or ABC advertising ''The Bachelor" as a seminar in the psychology of love. It's just a hunk of fat-blobbed baloney that only feeds your cynicism.

Oh, maybe we should let PBS get away with this blatant bit of denial. Maybe the public network, lost in an identity crisis some 20 years into the cable era, still unsure of how to compete with the likes of the Food Network and the Learning Channel, should be left dancing in the dark, clinging to its dignity. If PBS needs to pretend that a cheesy reality cook-off series is somehow educational and challenging, maybe we should just leave it to its bliss.

No, we shouldn't, not if we care about PBS and its potentially valuable place in the TV landscape. We need to expect from it nothing less than good and sometimes great things. And ''Cooking Under Fire," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 2, is not a very good thing. It's a formulaic show that merely mimics the countless niche reality contests all over TV grids, including Bravo's ''Project Runway," the Food Network's ''Iron Chef," and NBC's ''The Apprentice." There's nothing fresh about it, as it pits 12 young competitors against one another to win a job at a restaurant run by celebrity chef Todd English. Nothing distinguishes it from generic for-profit TV fare, as the wannabes nervously perform tasks for judges English, ''Blue Ginger" chef Ming Tsai, and author Michael Ruhlman.

It's fair to want more from PBS even in the realm of reality TV. A pioneer in the genre, PBS brought us ''An American Family" in 1973, a nonfiction series that attempted something new and different at the time (and which sowed the seeds for everything from ''The Real World" to ''The Surreal Life"). PBS's ''Manor House" and its other time-capsule series have generally reached higher than, say, ''My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," because they infused reality with a bit of a history lesson. There must be ways to make intelligent, publicly funded, unscripted products and then find audiences for them; that's one of PBS's challenges.

''Cooking Under Fire" begins with audition sequences like those that open the ''American Idol" season, as ordinary folks trying out do silly things. They don't know how to dice properly, they think a sea cucumber is a ''petrified tongue," and they sing songs to charm the judges, none of whom is particularly charismatic. Finally, of course, the finalists are chosen, tasks are assigned, and melodrama ensues. It all proceeds according to recipe. If you decide to feed your brain with ''Cooking Under Fire," I hope you're on a diet.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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