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On ‘Hell's Kitchen,’ kindness is off the menu

Oh, Gordo, what happened? The first season of “Hell's Kitchen” had its rough edges, but as it wrapped up a second spin, the first time around felt downright dignified compared to this season's lowlights.

It wasn't just that the profanity index was raised by at least 50 percent, though that took its toll.  Nor was it that Gordon Ramsay invented new ways to humiliate his kitchen charges — because it was fun to hear Giacomo called a donkey the first 20 times or so, even if we weren't entirely sure what that meant.

No, it was more that this season felt like one long extended episode of showboating, with Ramsay taking every opportunity to humiliate his kitchen hopefuls. Plenty of reality TV hinges on showboating — “The Apprentice” is the very definition of it, and even on the generally high-minded “Top Model” and “Project Runway,” Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum (and even Tim Gunn) have chances to very selfishly step in and save the day.  Rarely, though, is a show's key personality allowed to sit back, mock the participants and generally proclaim himself the king of all brilliance the way that Ramsay was this season.  And it's a shame; even if “Hell's Kitchen” tried to hinge on the premise that the show was an extended hazing episode, it wasn't until Monday night's finale that viewers got a chance to believe that Ramsay gave a darn about the cooks whose fates he controlled. By then, it was too late.

This isn’t to say that the first season of “Hell’s Kitchen” was a blockbuster. (Andrew, anyone?) The final showdown pitted ham-fisted Ralph against snake-in-the-grass Michael, and Michael’s win ranked somewhere on the moral justice charts two rungs below Richard Hatch’s win on the first “Survivor.”

The “Hell’s Kitchen” producers found a clear villain this season — Sara, the Dallas deli manager who took passive-aggressiveness to new heights. Too bad her primary foil was Virginia, the kitchen's official Miss Malaprop. This salad chef never met a phrase she couldn’t mangle, and despite Sara’s scheming, Virginia didn't exactly make herself a cause for viewers to champion. If you could leave aside her little frissons of delight when she caught a compliment from Ramsay, it was still hard to ignore her ineptitude at actually, oh, cooking anything. You had to credit her ability to discern flavors — though Heather's claim that Virginia only knew what went into Ramsay's “signature” sea bass dish because she'd bought his cookbook doesn't seem entirely preposterous. But having a palate doesn't make up for scorching salmon to a cinder.

Who wants some lovin'?It's not clear whether Virginia clung onto her chance because she simply managed to outwit the competition — and her spectacular record at winning challenges shows she not only had talent but a head for strategy — or because Ramsay needed her as a strong woman to put up against hard-working Heather. But Ramsay's seeming favoritism of Virginia verged on the silly, to the point that hulking Keith managed a graceless exit by suggesting, in the show's typical bleep-heavy format, that Gordon's interest in the salad chef might be something more than friendly.  (Keith wasn't immune to Virginia's charms either, having spiked his friendship with Garrett by taking her along on a trip to Vegas.)

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Of course, it's possible that Ramsay succumbed to newlywed Virginia’s mildly icky way of sexualizing the whole competition.  True, the girl can deep-fry the English language (“If I was any happier, I'd need a personal assistant”) but she knew how to make eyes at everyone, whether it was a random casino patron, a parking lot full of construction workers (“Who else wants some lovin'?”) or the very married Ramsay.

“I’m ready, I want it,” she told him at one point, referring to some bit of kitchen goodness.

Indeed.

And yes, there was obviously more backstory to Heather's time in the “Kitchen” barracks than met the eye. Her constant flip between tough girl and emotion-clogged crybaby could be as annoying as it was endearing. But her bonding with Rachel (which raised more than one eyebrow among viewers) and Keith certainly showed that she played well with others, and the New York sous chef's kitchen cred was never at issue, even if she had her share of mishaps. The only thing she must promise never to do again is wear mascara, because her makeup job when she went to meet the “media” on Monday's finale was as unappetizing as it gets.

But the worst of this season came from Ramsay himself.  In season one, he used his sheer volume and temper to great effect, and while it irked more than a few viewers who'd tuned in for a Julia Child experience, Ramsay's hotheaded ways became the show's trademark, beloved by . Ramsay last season strode a fine line between vitriol and kindness, and this year it devolved into cliché. He was louder, ruder and than ever before. In small portions those qualities make him an irresistible TV presence, but he stopped serving up the tapas version of Jackass Ramsay and moved straight into Outback Steakhouse mode, trying to ram a Bloomin’ Onion worth of obscenities down our throats. Ramsay shouted at his kitchen donkeys. He shouted at patrons. He would shout at a turnip if he thought it would bump his Nielsen share up a tenth of a point.

By the time he found his heart again in the final episode, lavishing compliments on all who would listen, it hardly made up for a season's worth of snarls.

His decibel-based education was doubly frustrating because Ramsay knows better.  He had plenty of hothead moments on the British series “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,” in which he arrived at a floundering restaurant each episode, determined to save it.  But they were balanced by a genuine desire to make things better for the kitchen staff, to nurture underdeveloped talent and sweep away the cobwebs in the (generally grubby) kitchens he descended upon.

Even on his latest U.K. endeavor, Channel 4's “The F Word”, he was brought to the verge of tears when he watched two pigs he helped raise, Trinny and Susannah, being slaughtered in the local butchery.  Yes, there's probably some forced drama, but at least the message was: Gordon cares. He may be a bastard, but he cares. (Sort of. He still cooked the pigs.)

In “Hell’s Kitchen,” though, volume was what mattered. The occasional pep talk to Rachel or Keith would quickly subside as he was taken over again by the spirit of Jackass Gordo, ranting and raging as though he was having a mean-off with Simon Cowell.

Dial it backWhen “Hell’s Kitchen” is spot on, as Gordon might say, it's a joy to watch — with all the claustrophobia of “Big Brother,” the professional ambition of a pre-Martha Stewart “Apprentice” and the snark of “Idol” if you could somehow surgically remove Paula from the equation. So when the show stinks like a week-old carton of milk left in the sun, it's doubly frustrating because you know Ramsay and his handlers could do better. “Kitchen” takes on a serious topic and showcases people who for the most part really do believe in what they’re doing and have a genuine passion to succeed — a universe apart from those unsettling Donald Trump wannabes with their shameless résumé inflation. It offers a serious prize (if not a perfect one) and dares to teach the average viewer a thing or two about life inside a kitchen — and does it all without invoking the spirit of Rocco DiSpirito.

So why the need to resort to Ramsay’s relentless hazing?  If a little goes a long way, “Kitchen's” producers inexplicably opted instead for overload.

It’s heartening to know that the show will be back again next summer. Love him or hate him, Ramsay is a personality made for TV, and when he’s on his game (as he was during “Nightmares”) he's both a commanding and compelling presence. I'd like to think that a man of his accomplishment feels secure enough to let his presence shine through on-screen without becoming a cartoon version of himself.

Maybe next year, the f-bombs will be dialed back and the cooking dialed up. For the sake of eternally suffering maitre d' Jean Philippe, who has again defended his title as the undisputed master of the sarcastic eyeroll, let's hope so.  Perhaps they’ll find diners who know cod from a codpiece. Perhaps they'll retire the risotto and Wellington before their total obviousness as foodstuffs becomes too painful. Perhaps they'll find some new plot twists, if for no other reason than to keep those of us who play a “Hell's Kitchen” drinking game from getting totally soused every Monday. (Take two sips every time Gordon says, “Get it in the bin!”)

Unlike the first season, when snakelike Michael slithered away with the prize (but ended up agreeing to another few years as Ramsay's kitchen slave) it was thoroughly gratifying to see Heather win in the end, in part because she was so qualified for the prize but also because she was so genuinely, overwhelmingly happy about it. And in those final moments, you could again glimpse that Ramsay can in fact be a stand-up guy. Too bad he decided to undo it all at the very end, with a bittersweet signoff to tide us over until next summer.  “I'm ready for the next challenge,” he told us in parting, “so f--- you all.”

MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné really wanted to taste Virginia's jalapeno tortellini and Heather's chocolate empanada. And no, that's not Virginia-style innuendo.

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