The promotions for the new season of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which returns to ABC tonight for a second season, set up a central conflict of one man against the system. Celebrity chef and healthy-food activist Oliver, it is suggested, wants to come in and work with the Los Angeles Unified School District, as he worked with a much smaller district in West Virginia in his first season, to improve the freshness and nutrition of its school lunches. But the district has balked and won't let him in.
Here's the thing: This battle doesn't need to have a good guy and a bad guy. What Oliver is doing here is legitimately important work, and he's good at it. Oliver is great at shedding light on nutrition in schools and posing questions like why a school needs to give kids giant donuts in plastic sleeves ... ever. He does a demonstration of the washing of beef in ammonia, a topic that's been covered in The New York Times and other outlets, that does a pretty good job of raising the question of what kind of cheap meats it's a good idea to feed to kids.
At the same time, who can blame a school district that decides it doesn't want to get involved with a reality television show? Wanting to hide the terrible secrets of your kitchens is not the only reason a district might conceivably decide against allowing filming. Legal headaches, parental complaints, producer antics, excess costs ... there are a lot of reasons that might happen.
Fortunately, you don't have to see the school district as a mustache-twirling villain to like what Oliver is doing here. For one thing, he's interested in more things than just schools; he's encouraging people to consume food more thoughtfully. He approaches a small fast-food outlet (he points out that it's not like the fast-food giants were going to give him a shot) about possibly overhauling its menu to make it healthier.
And they don't shy away from the tough questions that this kind of thinking raises — it's easy for Oliver to show that his fresh ingredients taste better in addition to being healthier, but it's equally easy for the restaurant owner to show that his customers might well choke on the higher prices. They don't set the guy up as a bad guy or an idiot because he sells unhealthy food; they set him up as a traditionalist and a pragmatist. It's a fairly sophisticated presentation of the problem, believe it or not, built on an understanding that many dubious practices don't just develop out of malice or decadence; they develop because they're rational for the people who make them, whether it's a strapped school district or a small business owner.
Similarly, when Oliver visits a seminar devoted to keeping flavored milk (which he says has more sugar than fully-sugared sodas) in schools, it is legitimately provocative. He addresses questions of who funds the research that schools rely on and of whether just demonstrating that kids will drink more milk if you dump sugar in it is adequate to answer the question. (I'm also a bit surprised that he got such a firmly anti-flavored-milk and anti-soda/pop message on ABC, if I'm being honest, advertisers being what they are.)
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is a much better show than it should be; it seems so much like a stunt, and it seems so repetitive of healthy-eating lectures that everyone has heard. But Oliver is an entertainer, and as much as reality television comes in for various criticisms, Oliver's commitment to this particular cause certainly seems genuine — he worked on similar school-lunch projects in the UK for several years before he brought his act to the United States. He's a celebrity chef for a reason: It's fun to hear him talk about food, and he's passionate about it, and he's charismatic.
You should expect, and will have to tolerate, a certain amount of unnecessary gasp-inducing drama to get to the good parts of this show, as is the case on most interesting unscripted shows. But as far as uses of the format go, this one seems pretty constructive and legitimately thoughtful, and everyone involved deserves some credit for that. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.