The Profound Strangeness of HBO Max’s Wolfgang Puck Series ‘The Event’
Even in what we might call normal times, HBO Max’s “The Event” would have made for strange television.
The series, which launched last month and covers the work of Wolfgang Puck’s catering company, presents itself in recognizable garb — it’s a reality show about workers in a high-pressure environment, tasked each episode with deliverable goals that are both easily understood and, seemingly, just challenging enough to fulfill as to generate low-stakes drama. And yet it’s first less and eventually, more than the show it tells us it is: A vacant infomercial for the brand name of a successful chef-turned-businessman, and a show whose blandness emphasizes just how extraordinary our own circumstances are. When its title refers to the events at which Puck and his team sling sliders and signature cocktails, “The Event” is unsuccessful on any terms but promotional ones, making it feel out-of-step with the candor and interest we expect from our unscripted TV. When it evokes a sense of the events unfolding all around us, frankness of a sort suddenly breaks through, in an oddly moving time capsule of a profound alteration, and what came just before.
Each episode depicts a single affair catered by famed restaurateur Puck, he of California cuisine standard-bearer Spago, and, especially, by the team beneath him. And the first two installments — the dinner and after-party at the 2020 Screen Actors Guild Awards, and then a small two-day conference of entrepreneurs held, for reasons withheld from us, in the cavernous Rose Bowl — go off with only the sort of mishaps that these caterers have seen before. The misbegotten Rose Bowl event, for instance, is vexed both by unusually high winds and staffing issues that seem to be explained, simply enough, by the event lead not hiring enough waiters. So far, so straightforward. Little wonder the voice-of-god narrator of the show must gin up drama at the episode’s midpoint: “How many times in this historic stadium have teams gone into halftime trailing behind?,” this narrator asks. In the third episode, which takes place at the red-carpet premiere of “Westworld’s” third season (which occurred on March 5, 2020), chefs are noticing that the buffet is unusually undersubscribed — the guests are really just there because going to parties is what they do, but a communal food experience is for some unstated reason unappealing. And the season finale, in which the caterers are to set up a pop-up restaurant at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at Indian Wells, ends with the chefs serving a massive feast to those tournament staffers still remaining on the grounds after the event’s cancellation.
Early on, “The Event” is so intent on avoiding embarrassment that it ends up incurring it more severely. No one might have expected a Puckian gloss on “Vanderpump Rules” — his businesses, booked by a clientele that is as establishment as it gets, don’t need viewers to think they’re cool — but conflict is so aggressively ironed out that the show becomes as interesting and dynamic as a white tablecloth. Puck himself is a genial and occasional presence on the show, fitting the nature of his catering company as but one extension of a multi-tentacled brand. He shows up to burnish the brand charmingly, but is hardly in the trenches. In the tennis tournament episode, he cooks up his signature Wienerschnitzel, golden as an Oscar trophy, but is gone by the time the cooks must disassemble a never-used restaurant. And those dealing with day-to-day concerns tend to talk past them, as if our taste for conflict or even for personality could be satisfied instead by increasingly baroque descriptions of food. The chefs’ testimonials to camera about the incredible, unique, signature Wolfgang Puck food they cook ultimately emphasizes that food’s out-of-time nature (entrees inflected with a Western idea of Asian flavors and described with adjectives like “Chinois” or “Hong Kong”; elevated Betty Crocker Cookbook fare like chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms; gaudily fruit-forward “martinis” that seem more like blended smoothies with some vodka). What one buys when contracting Puck, it seems, is the opportunity to take a step back from surfing trends, to experience that which is “classic” in the sense that it will never change.
Which is what makes the show’s being forced to confront upheaval all at once poignant. The dawning, unnameable understanding of the chefs, at the premiere party for an HBO sci-fi drama, that the buffet experience was on its way out felt accidentally apt: The end of automatic thinking about the way things have always been done and the beginning of a dark breakthrough was indeed something out of “Westworld.” And the last meal at BNP Paribas, during which a grotesque amount of food intended for well-heeled tennis fans to consume over weeks gets cooked and served all at once, has a last-party-aboard-the-Titanic feeling, both gleeful in its extravagance and nihilistic in its understanding that the hangover will be bad. That bad vibes are pervasive doesn’t need to be detailed at length: A shot of a chef mashing up the tennis-ball-shaped tiramisu bombs into mush says it all. The question of what the future of food service will look like is definitely not one “The Event” is equipped to answer. Its smile is too practiced; its unease at even a hint of drama, and all that drama can reveal, is too deep. But cameras were, at least, there to show what it felt like as food service halted, ahead of whatever shift was to come next.
This show exists within exactly the right ecosystem. Netflix may truck along as the dominant pipeline for streaming entertainment, and Quibi’s collision with its moment may have happened so rapidly that the crash became the first big entertainment-during-COVID business story. But there seems no streaming service as closely identified with the changes in viewership over the course of the past year than HBO Max. It launched in May 2020 with an attenuated slate of originals (the planned “Friends” reunion didn’t tape before society shut down), but it then lay a claim to all the movies Warner Brothers would, in a pandemic-free 2020 and 2021, have kept exclusively in theaters, converting big communal experiences into solitary endeavors.
The content, at times, follows the moment, too: Elsewhere on the streaming service is “Stylish,” which features former J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons seeking an apprentice to build out her fledgling lifestyle empire. (In a testament to just how much weight in barnacles the old red-carpet economy supported, she does some work at the SAG Awards too; it’s a wonder her camera crew didn’t bump into Puck’s.) That she doesn’t know what she and her new acolyte will do is the point. They have time to figure it out together! Until they don’t, and cameras roll as everything gets foreshortened by New York’s sudden emptiness; the store Lyons spent time planning to open goes online, sort of. The airy possibilities slowly deflate until the show finds its winner, with what prize was meaningfully won a question that, for the sake of everyone’s feelings, hardly seems worth answering.
Or take “Selena + Chef,” a culinary show with precisely the opposite value proposition as “The Event.” The show is filmed entirely in a post-quarantine world, and its host Selena Gomez, sidelined from her music and acting careers for a moment, makes use of all the time newly on her hands to receive virtual training in different styles of cooking. It’s very hard to envision the Puck of “The Event,” or one of his deputies, seeing the point of teaching Gomez remotely — for them, the experience of food is best done at a scale impossible to envision right now, using techniques and styles whose familiarity is the point. “The Event” is a show so congenitally averse to the concept of pivoting that, faced with the grandest-scale story about restaurants and their importance to society in our lifetimes, it shut down rather than trying to tell it.
But the moment it captured, balanced between the soirée of the old world and the clean-up of our new one, is one this purposefully self-promotional show cannot entirely sap of resonance or power. “The Event” may not be escapist — I’d do anything to go out right now, but its big, impersonal carving-station-and-a-cheese-plate corporate feasts made me feel queasy. I can’t be the only person who, in isolation, lost his taste for that particular sort of enforced fun. But the show remains soothingly nostalgic, if not for parties, then for a moment in which it seemed as though small alterations to the norm would be enough to keep the fun going. It was a time neither we nor the guests of “The Event” appreciated enough as it happened, a time when focus on the sear of a steak or the cut of a radish seemed neither inconsequential nor like the only distraction keeping the homebound from losing it. It was just a job, one that went on because it always had and one that no one ever thought would vanish.
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