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Is Jamie Oliver Creating Revolution, or Just Good TV?

The latest British invasion aims for the stomach—and misses. Well, sort of.

Here is Jamie headed to Huntington, West Virginia, a place the Associated Press dubbed the fattest city in the country. Here is Jamie parading out the town’s morbidly obese, all destined for the morgue in a matter of months. Here is Jamie making school lunches from scratch in an effort to save America. Here is Jamie crying on the playground—having failed publicly on his widely publicized reality TV series, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

The critics aren’t feeling sorry. The New York Times said Food Revolution didn’t tackle the food industry or its lobbyists. On Civil Eats, Debra Eschmeyer found that Oliver tended to channel parental indignation at local employees of school cafeterias rather than taking on the villains in Washington. The Washington Post said the show avoids "our culture's politicization of food—the whole arugula divide, the high cost of eating right, the class issues over portion size, the constant character judgments strewn between a fine meal and the drive-thru." While Oliver may claim that cooking from scratch equals healthy eating—Reason magazine found one of his lunches contained more calories, sugar, and fat than two Happy Meals.

There’s no talk about what these kids would be eating if they were not lined up in West Virginia cafeteria for some early morning breakfast pizza. (Is mediocre school pizza better than a double serving of Fruity Pebbles?) No discussion about the 30 million pounds of beef from downer cows that ended up in school cafeterias last year. (Is fresh food good even if it's fresh from bad sources?) Oh no. Food Revolution is all entertainment. Change the set, redo the casting, this could be Extreme Makeover, Cafeteria Edition.

Besides, nobody likes an outsider telling them what to eat, especially when that outsider is a celebrity chef—with 10 cookbooks, 12 television series, six restaurants, and an estimated $65 million—who seems to be suggesting that working class folks just need to “get with it” so they can get healthy, transform themselves, and make a better society. And, frankly, that’s a long way off: When given a choice, Huntington’s kids all preferred fries to Oliver’s revolutionary food.

Make no mistake, though, Food Revolution makes for decent television. Especially when the 34-year-old hyperactive, dyslexic chef, with a predilection for horrid songs about curry, dismembers a chicken and throws it in a blender—along with the necessary preservatives, flavorings, salt—to make fried chicken nuggets, only to have the school children choose the revolting fried-up sludge over his moral, upstanding made-from-scratch chicken, in the clip below:\n\n

And that’s why Food Revolution is ultimately worth checking out. It’s easy to digest. The executives at ABC wouldn’t greenlight a show called A Nuanced Discussion of Food Politics by Some British Wanker with a Funny Haircut. But if all this Jamie-ness trickles further into the mainstream, and people start picking up the phone to call Congress, maybe his silly publicity stunt will actually result in some modest legislation. There’s hope that Oliver’s "Food Revolution” can be more than just the Che Guevara T-shirt of food politics—and more than just entertainment playing at social change.

Food Revolution airs Fridays on ABC at 9 / 8 Central. You can watch all the episodes here on Hulu.

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