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You say you want a revolution? Well, you know …

By Staff | Mar 31, 2010

How do you shake up leaders and citizens of Huntington? Ask to come to the city and teach citizens how to properly eat.

After Huntington received concurrent “Most Unhealthiest City” and “Fattest City in America” rankings — though not by much — on various governmental statistics listings, along came British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver offering to ride in on his stove and stir fryers and teach the populace to ditch processed food in favor of cooking fresh items.

Although Mayor Kim Wolfe’s office worked with Oliver, nerves bristled — how would the final cut of the six-episode mini-series portray Huntingtonians and West Virginians?   Did Jamie have honest (at least in front of the camera) motives for teaching city residents to cook fresher foods? Would his network ‘reality’ series inflame Appalachian stereotypes or those that naturally follow the statistic on unhealthiest and fattest city in America?

No one wanted furthering of current stereotypes (i.e. hillbilly, few teeth, bare feet) or cannibals in the holler (“Cabin Fever”) either.

Resistance mounted. City Councilman Scott Caserta welcomed the chef, asking that he find a nutritious way to prepare breakfast biscuits and gravy. 

A premiere showing March 20 at the Jeslyn Performing Arts Center (former Camelot Theatre) spotlighted local personnel who had roles in the reality series, such as The DAWG’s Rod Willis, high school students, Rod’s on air pal, Rocky, and ‘lunch ladies’ at Central Elementary School.

Rod challenged Chef Oliver ‘on the air.’ He became the chief antagonist of Jamie in the first two episodes. In hindsight, he expressed issues with the chef’s personality, but applauds the program’s healthy cooking intentions.

After antagonizing Jamie over eating too much lettuce, Rod bet him he could not find 1,000 people in Huntington to volunteer to learn how to cook.

“It came up spontaneously,” Willis explained prior to the premiere. “I really didn’t think he would get 1,000 people to go through his kitchen. Of course, he ultimately won and I am the 1,000th one that went through.”

Reflecting back on the shooting of the six-episode ABC mini-series, Willis said, “I should have been a little more receptive to the [nutritious] things he was talking about and a little more cruel to him. I don’t think Jamie Oliver should be the one to tell us how to live our lives. After all, this guy is a rich, British bastard.”

Willis admitted the ‘fattest city’ and ‘unhealthiest city’ designations are “something we already knew. I think it’s more personal responsibility. Jamie brought light on it’s basically up to you to take [eating habits] to heart. If you want to live healthy, that’s up to you to take those matters to heart.”

Graffiti: How much of the show was choreographed?

Willis: So you are asking me if reality TV is REAL? Eighty percent is real and unscripted. Twenty percent, they do plan. They don’t walk in to a place; they have to make preparations to be at certain places. The governor will not show up randomly. You will not walk into a radio station randomly; you have to make contacts. It was real to an extinct; his message is real. But I don’t think it should have been Jamie doing this.

Graffiti: Is it fair to say that like even news and documentaries, the shots and dramatic arcs are in place on many reality shows?

Willis: There is a lot of reality in it. Jamie taught me one thing when we were doing the episodes: Go ahead and be yourself, if you want to say sh–, go ahead and say it. They will cut it out anyway. Be yourself and you will be OK. Jamie did it himself. He enlightened me on that.

On the show’s more serious combating obesity and unhealthy eating, the morning disc jockey revealed that Oliver taught him “if you cannot pronounce or you do not know what is in the ingredients when you read those, don’t eat it. If you [see] Dye No. 6, and you don’t know what Dye No. 6 is, don’t eat it.”

Although caught amongst several venues at the same time, Huntington Mayor Kim Wolfe attended the screening, leaving shortly before the first segment ended. Responding to a quick, ‘was it up to promised expectations,’ the mayor gave a smile and a big thumbs up.

Most of those watching had strongly affirmative responses.

Dr. Leo Fleckenstein, a retired dentist now a volunteer dentist and dental director at Ebenezer, seized the opportunity for a few ‘dental’ wisecracks such as, “I’ve been in your mouth lot of times,” to radio listeners of the remote broadcast. After viewing the first episode, the dentist told HNN, “Jamie Oliver has one great sense of humor. It was good. It did not portray us all that badly either.”

Originally, Kendra Kelley had strong concerns about whether the show would depict the city and its people in a favorable way.

“I think we are just about like any other city. It shows us the brass bones of what every city has. He’s trying to help us fix it,” Kelley said.

Marisa Clayton, one of the teens participating in the production, said, “I thought it was amazing; it was really cool.” She confirmed that the chef’s production company lived up to their word in how the people in the series would be portrayed.

“He put it in a positive way. There’s no negativity towards the city. I think the first episode brought out he was not here to make fun of us,” Clayton said.

However, Rev. Samuel Moore, an educator and minister, still had reservations after the first episode.

“I had [an advance] heads up that it was not very flattering. It pretty much lived up to its billing. I’m not going to pass judgment right away; it’s trying to build a television audience. I’m going to give it a chance,” Moore said.

He understood, though, that Oliver portrayed the situation in an “urgent crisis” mode, which is often necessary to motivate change. Moore agreed with a laugh about an “unscripted script.”

Ebenezer Medical Outreach Director Yvonne Jones told another reporter while multitasking prior to the showing that the series portrays the Huntington community in an increasingly positive light AFTER the episodes that tackle the delicate obesity topics.

Watching the first two episodes, Oliver himself does most of the ‘personable acting’ seemingly allowing locals to play straight and serious off his sharp, edgy and succulent one-liners. He’s expectedly traumatized by the processed school food including breakfast pizza, but he’s part clown and part mentor in conveying his fresh cooking message through often-outlandish bits. (Kudos to the Jamie as a pea and Jamie dumping a year’s worth of fat from the garbage truck.)

Meanwhile, an informed source told Graffiti that the final episode had to be re-edited. Favorable buzz attracted a high profile cameo. Let’s describe her as an attractive black woman with two daughters, who never wears hosiery and has stirred discussion by her fondness for sleeveless dresses. Oh, and she lives in a big white house that does not have a picket fence.

And, seriously, let’s think about the realty show terminology. As an experienced film writer/critic, my thoughts steer toward the production techniques of a documentary. Relying upon factual materials, a documentary filmmaker usually scripts his film and plans shots, editing techniques, and narration. In addition, think about the amount of preparation necessary for lighting, camera movement, and sight angles for film and television, even a stand up by a news reporter.

With that said, let me suggest: How much ‘reality’ is real and how much is at least partially planned, orchestrated for dramatic arcs, and correct flubs with a ‘take two’ even on spontaneous events?

Now, without blowing the reality ‘Santa Claus’ live on tape myth, contemplate the filmmaking equipment mechanics, then ask what portions of any reality show ‘go with the flow’ and what portions are, let’s say, shot from comedic or dramatic ‘outlines?’

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com