The Cooks: articles

Atkinson and Toby Schmitz

The Cooks failed Channel Ten's unfair ratings taste test.

The Cooks

One week. That’s how long the Ten Network gave The Cooks to perform in a prime-time slot on Monday night.

The new local drama series, one of only two launched in 2004, was effectively given a single opportunity to attract an audience on October 18.

After what can only be described—in ratings terms, at least—as a dismal debut, The Cooks was shunted from 9.30pm to a virtual graveyard slot of 10.30pm on Thursdays.

The network’s confidence in the show—if, indeed, it had any—was sufficiently shaken by the early figures of less than 400,000 viewers nationally to write off the thing.

There’s good reason to believe that Ten had doubts about The Cooks.

Produced by award-winner Penny Chapman (Brides of Christ, The Leaving of Liverpool) and created by Sue Smith, a talented screenwriter who was recently honoured with the Hector Crawford Award, from the Australian Writers’ Guild, for a significant contribution to the craft, the drama was mostly shot last year.

So Ten had the show on the shelf through most of the 2004 ratings period, not a sign of great confidence.

When it did, finally, decide to launch the drama, it chose big-viewing Monday night, but put it up against the final handful of episodes of Sex and the City, a series aiming for exactly the same audience.

Then, in the most brutal way, it was sink or swim: make your mark fast or you’re toast.

One might wonder why, having held on to The Cooks all year, Ten didn’t wait until Sex and the City had finished.

If it lacked confidence in the production, it could have waited until ratings ended and had something to engage viewers over summer, when the stakes aren’t as high, the competition less intense and the pickings slimmer.

But even with the curious mid-October debut, the idea of a single week in the spotlight is absurd.

The premature wrenching had all the markings of a sales department-driven decision: at a time when advertisers are being courted and signed up for 2005, Ten has to put the best possible spin on its audience numbers. Any weak link is cut from the chain.

But this decision seems to be more about short-term gain than long-term investment.

With the possible exception of Always Greener, which Seven subsequently killed with muddled scheduling and an ill-advised shift in priorities to reality TV, no local drama series has made a significant splash in its first year.

The list of shows nursed through less-than-spectacular opening seasons that have gone on to earn loyal and enduring followings is substantial: Blue Heelers, GP, Water Rats, SeaChange, All Saints, McLeod’s Daughters, Neighbours (axed by Seven and very profitably revived by Ten), to name a few.

Building a successful series in this country takes time and patience. But in the current climate, it seems that a drama won’t be allowed two weeks to find its feet, let alone two years.

The Cooks deserved a better shot. Here is a show striving for verve and originality, and employing talented people to achieve it. Rejecting the familiar police station, hospital or lawyer’s office set-ups, it opts for the fresh setting of rival inner-city restaurants.

Given the ongoing interest in food and cooking shows, and a few terrific restaurant films on the big screen (such as Dinner Rush, Big Night and Mostly Martha), not a bad idea.

To the energy of the duelling kitchen crews, add a vibrant collection of characters. Rhondda Findleton (Grass Roots) and Kate Atkinson (SeaChange) make a zesty combo as Rita and Ruth, running the R&R, Findleton sleek and sultry, a woman of the world, Atkinson a delightfully messy, hot’n’bothered mix of ambition, longing and endearing klutziness.

Toby Schmitz is an unusual choice as Gabe.

Not your classic romantic lead, but he has a lot of charisma and grows more engaging every week as a reformed bad boy trying to juggle responsibilities to his daughter and his newly established eatery with his urge to party.

And Leon Ford is a joy as the grotty, responsibility-resistant kitchen hand, Dishpig.

The early episodes have featured a few awkward encounters, notably some of the sex scenes between Sachin (Nicholas Brown) and Carmelita (Emma Lung), which seem to have been inserted to spice things up but come across like token naughty bits.

Equally, there have been some wonderful interludes, such as the sequence in the second episode, written by Andrew Kelly and directed by Brendan Maher, when a dejected Gabe had lost the will to cook.

He found comfort and affirmation in an all-night gnocchi-making session with Ruth, his desirably “poodle-like” potato creations melding beautifully with her sauce in a lovely comment on their vexed relationship.

There’s much to savour in The Cooks: snappy scripts, a jazzy look, a melting pot of vibrant characters that is effortlessly multicultural. Give it a go.

Just because Ten has treated it shabbily doesn’t mean you should.

The Cooks screens Thursday at 10.30pm on Channel Ten.

By Debi Enker
November 11, 2004
The Age