If there is one lesson to be learnt from Michel Roux’s Service, it is that so-called “reality” television need not be about contestants trumping one another for the position of the story’s antagonist; nor does it need to be about producers manipulating the stories of its characters to such an extent that it leaves any sense of reality in the dust of their unscrupulous, money-hungry puppetry. Instead, why not set out an objective at the start of your documentary and focus your series on maintaining this throughout, saving your creative desires for post-production? Before I lead you too far along this rant against what reality television has become, allow me to explain why Service, an eight-part BBC series from 2011, has had such a reaction on me.
Take eight young Brits, each of whom has their reason for losing life direction at an early age, ASBOs, teenage pregnancy, even family tragedy, and throw them into eight weeks of increasingly intricate and demanding dinner service mentored by two-star Michelin chef Michel Roux Jr. and “service guru” Fred Sirieix of Michelin starred Galvin at Windows at London’s Park Lane Hilton hotel. The goal is not fame, fortune or celebrity status, and the anonymity of the contestants and the show itself in the years that followed have proven this, but of two simple scholarships: one maître-d scholarship and one wine connoisseur. That is all that is being offered by Michel Roux, who will also make the decision by himself in the final episode; a chance for two of these young people to get one rung closer to making something of themselves in a field they would have thought never possible. It would be tempting to use weekly evictions as a draw for keeping the audience engaged but in fact most of the original cast remain until the final moment when Roux makes his decision. This risk pays off, however, as our connection to the contestants and to their journey from having never eaten a three-course meal to serving Michelin starred ones is enough to hold us. We want characters to succeed, we want other to fail at times and through it all Roux and Sirieix remain as nice a pair of mentors as one could hope for.
Critics argue that this nicely, nicely approach adopted by the pair meant they were “exactly the kind of boss you would like in real life; the last you want to see on TV” because “reality TV thrives on bullies” (John Grace, The Guardian). Whilst I have already agreed with the latter point, I must argue that some of us grow tired of the good vs. evil storylines that bleed into every overproduced episode of today’s Big Brother or Hell’s Kitchen and that reality television does not always have to be so strangled by conflict and debauchery. Personally, I want characters and plot to feel real and reality does not always need a hero and a villain if the people and the stories are interesting enough for us to care.
Speaking of production though, this is perhaps where Service shines most of all. I will steer clear of the comparison of a show about the values of the intricate details of dinner service being produced with such delicacy (although I’m aware I just have made that exact comparison) but it is narratively expertly fine-tuned. We are given enough backstory to care but not enough to bore (X Factor this is not); each episode steps the level of service required and therefore the pressure on the characters up and everyone makes mistakes from time-to-time. The music must be highlighted too. The original composition there is feels natural and understated, with its simple piano pieces, and the pre-composed choices fit seamlessly amongst them and nicely with where the story is. In fact, my one gripe, if I were to search for one, would be the choice of pop songs in the series finale which not only felt jarring and out of place but went completely against what the series had sounded like in the seven episodes previous.
Michel Roux’s Service is a beautiful series. Just because reality television has become the nonsensical celebrity factory that it is, does not mean it cannot still produce something worth watching – even if I had to search back four years in the past to find it.