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Beauty and the feast
Nigella Lawson’s sensuous kitchen; plus grand finales from Alias and The Guardian

Americans are getting fatter by the minute, we’re told. Our kids are fat, our fat asses can’t fit into airplane seats, our big fat super-sized fast food is killing us. Conflicting messages bombard us from all sides: carbs are evil, sugar is the new tobacco, butter may not be so bad for you after all, veggie is the one true way. You could go insane (not to mention hungry) trying to sort out the chaotic chatter filtering down to us humble eaters from higher up the foodie pyramid.

Or you could tune it all out and worship at the altar of Nigella Lawson, the British TV cooking-show host and author of the bestselling books How To Be a Domestic Goddess and How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food. Her newest TV series, Forever Summer with Nigella, is currently running on cable’s Style network (Tuesday at 9 p.m., repeated Saturday at 10 p.m.).

Curvy, orally fixated, and unabashedly foodosexual, the dark-haired Lawson glides around her home kitchen in soft focus (her shows are filmed, not taped, and there’s no studio audience). Her slightly almond-shaped eyes glitter as she dips her fingers into one concoction or another and sucks them clean, emitting little mews of pleasure. " I have only one rule in the kitchen, " she’s famous for saying. " If it tastes good, eat it. "

The daughter of Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor of the Exchequer (but don’t let that put you off), Lawson has been a celebrity in Britain for most of her adult life. Formerly a restaurant reviewer for the Spectator, she is the current food editor of British Vogue (she also writes a make-up column for the Times of London and a food column for the New York Times). Her life took a tragic turn a few years ago when her husband, British journalist John Diamond, died of throat cancer, leaving her with two small children. But her first cooking series, Nigella Bites, soon spread the cult of Nigella to the US, and the dark clouds appear to have lifted. On TV, she cooks for laughing friends on the patio of her book-lined London brownstone as pretty children run through the sun-dappled garden. It’s the stuff of daydreams.

Lawson’s shows and cookbooks are more flights of fancy than home-economics class. Her recipes have names like " Slut Red Raspberries in Chardonnay Jelly " and " Black and Blue Beef, " and they’re organized by mood or color, not by main ingredient or occasion. Her descriptions are flowery, sensual, and tempting. Prawns are " deep coral curls. " Squash-and-lemon soup is " yellow, the color of sunshine, the color of happiness. " Preparing to pound baby lamb chops, she looks into the camera with that slightly off-center gaze that makes her appear as if she’d just been freshly bedded and tells us, with the merest hint of a smile, " There is always room for a bit of brutality in the kitchen. "

Lawson has been criticized for her casual approach to cooking; her goal, she states, is " to achieve maximum pleasure through minimum effort. " Her measurements are inexact; she’s liberal (almost sloppy) about substitutions and working with what you’ve got. Her recipes are not the kind that require 20 obscure ingredients and three days of prep work. " All will be done serenely, " she assures us on Forever Summer as she sashays dreamily around her kitchen preparing a party luncheon. " Meanwhile, you can just sit in the garden and drink with your friends. " Who wouldn’t want to raise a glass to those sentiments?

I happen to find Lawson irresistible, but then, I’m just the sort of lazy cook who goes in for maximum pleasure and minimum effort. Ripe, soft, and juicy, Lawson is the perfect pin-up girl for the moment. The food phobia that ran rampant in the ’90s, with the de-nomination of eggs, butter, dairy, red meat, fat, and sugar, is giving way to a loosening of inhibitions and a rebellion against the tyranny of the food police. We listened to them and ate more pasta and less meat, and it only made us fatter. So now we’re going to eat what tastes good. Asceticism, repression, and the intense drive for perfection in our bodies and at our tables is so last-century. Down with Martha Stewart! Long live Nigella!

THE TRADITIONAL TV SEASON has just ended in the usual blaze of cliffhangers, stunts, and final chapters. Some thoughts on two of the more memorable season enders:

Alias (ABC, May 4). The taut and stylish girl-spy show audaciously transformed its original premise midway through this season (its second), with heroine Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) leading a CIA special-ops team in destroying " SD-6, " the nefarious rogue spy organization that had been masquerading as a covert wing of the CIA. Gone was the thorny double-agent stuff that had apparently confused some viewers; Sydney was now just a CIA agent, not a CIA mole within SD-6. And she and her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), were now free to do something sexier than make goo-goo eyes at one another (not that there are many things sexier than their smoldering passion held in check).

The streamlining of Alias could have meant the dumbing-down of one of the most brain-teasing shows on TV. It didn’t. Alias version 2.0 capitalized on the post–September 11 world order with a couple of plausibly vicious terrorist acts (a scene of a CIA agent turned into a human bomb still gives me the willies). And an X-Files-y plot concerning evil clones could have turned irredeemably dippy, but it didn’t. Instead, it echoed Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that great pop-cultural metaphor for the Red Scare of the 1950s, with Sydney not knowing whether her best friends Will (Bradley Cooper) and Francie (Merrin Dungey) are really Will and Francie or terrorists wearing their bodies like costumes.

In the Alias season finale, creator/writer J.J. Abrams pulled off another stunning transformation while remaining true to the show’s two main themes: divided loyalties and conflicted female desires. Sydney’s parents are both spies — dad Jack (Victor Garber) is a CIA good guy and mom Irina (Lena Olin) a duplicitous ex-KGB bad girl. But nothing on Alias is ever black or white, so all season, Sydney has been pulled between her parents, who may not be what they seem. The finale seemed to imply that Jack has gone over to the dark side with his old SD-6 colleague, Sloane (Ron Rifkin); Irina, meanwhile, may be in the midst of a staggering quadruple cross and actually be on Sydney’s side.

At least that’s what I think is happening. It was hard to focus on the finer points given that the homestretch of the show featured the most spectacular girlfight in prime-time history between Sydney and the evil Francie clone, as well as an indelible moment where Olin dangled by a rope from a skyscraper like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, machine-gun-blasting her way into the building through a plate-glass window. Olin always looks a little crazed with pleasure when she’s called upon to do the tough stuff, and this scene was her most pleasure-crazy yet. In Irina, who is definitely up to something yet seems to be taking great pains to protect her daughter, Olin has created a character who is at once ferociously ambitious and ferociously maternal. She’s the ultimate working mother.

The Guardian (CBS, May 13). This is the most deceptive show on TV. You’d think the premise — Pittsburgh lawyer Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) is sentenced to work as a children’s advocate in a free legal clinic after being busted for cocaine possession — would lead to typical law-drama grandstanding and kids-in-trouble melodrama. But The Guardian is something else entirely. Nick is as emotionally wounded as the kids he represents. He has an arm’s-length relationship with his frosty father, Burton (Dabney Coleman), a lawyer who was divorced from Nick’s mother and absent for much of his childhood. Eager to make amends, Burton makes Nick a partner in his firm, and the two men circle miserably around each other, mumbling terse bits of encouragement. This fascinating study of manly, shut-down basket cases has always skirted the maudlin, opting instead for a quiet, melancholy tone; the show’s emotional flashpoints creep up on you rather than knock you over the head.

Last week’s finale was one of those flashpoints, and I never saw it coming. Nick and Burton, both lonely and both facing rejection (Nick is rebuffed, again, by the manipulative colleague he loves; Burton is in danger of losing the foster daughter he has taken in), are struggling with their repressed anger. They make a few abortive attempts to talk about what’s eating them, but as usual, they can’t connect with each other. On the way to a black-tie function, Burton is cut off by another driver as he attempts to park, and he gets out of the car to plead his case with his usual soft-spoken courtliness. Before you can even register what’s coming, a couple of words are exchanged and Burton and Nick suddenly and almost silently start beating the guy to a pulp. The finale ends with father and son driving away from the scene in shock, with blood on their hands. Watch The Guardian in summer reruns (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) and see how it all came to this.

Issue Date: May 23 - 29, 2003
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