“What if we run out of entertainment?”
Of all the “what is going to be the new normal?” questions produced by the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effects, the one about running out of stuff to amuse ourselves in the face of this unparalleled health and economic crisis is both inconsequential and a bit irrational.
Yet I couldn’t help but be overcome with the idea that I had found bottom with the debut of Amy Schumer Learns to Cook on the Food Network on Monday night. The show is a terrifying look at how bizarre and random TV could get amid a prolonged shutdown or rolling waves of the virus spread and the disruption they’d create in entertainment production.
This is the end of the road—until we get Selena Gomez’s pandemic cooking show, on HBO Max.
Amy Schumer Learns to Cook has a straightforward premise: Schumer, the popular comedian and actress, is holed up for the quarantine at a friend’s home in the woods with her husband, her 11-month-old son, and her nanny. Her husband, Chris Fischer, is a professional chef. The nanny has been enlisted as the camera operator, at least while the baby is asleep. Schumer doesn’t know what she’s doing outside the cocktail corner, but she’s now going to pick up some skills.
Mere seconds into the first episode, the out-of-focus camerawork and seeming lack of a lighting rig make the episode look not just like a “web show,” but a web show from the early 2000s. There are first-time Twitch streamers—and even Zoom callers—with better setups than Amy Schumer Learns to Cook. If Schumer wants to learn something new, perhaps she should try TV production before worrying about cooking.
Failing other famous people heeding this advice, memo to celebrity nannies: Get yourself a 4k camera now and start learning how to shoot with it. And put a ring light in your everyday carry too, just in case.
The hour-long episode, which appears to be two half-hours smushed together, looks a bit better in the second half, which one could take as a sign of improvement or merely that Food Network was too cheap to throw out or reshoot the pilot.
Content-wise, the instructional cooking is pleasant enough though not groundbreaking (Fischer is a good chef and a patient teacher, but the menu is basic fare like fried rice). The relationship part of the show—that effort to make me feel like I’m hanging out with my friend Amy, the famous comedian, and her family—works when the action doesn’t steal focus by reminding us they’re in quarantine or accentuating the unprofessional set.
But they remind viewers of the pandemic in ways both spoken and unspoken ways. Writing the dishes they’re making on cardboard-box scraps, for example, is meant to be cute and accentuate the rough-hewn presentation, but they’re unreadable at times with the camerawork. Plus, the network still throws in an interstitial graphic telling you what’s happening immediately after the unreadable cardboard to camera moments. Schumer is low key and unvarnished and shows flashes of charm and wit, but she also feels the need to remind us that this is a difficult time and she understands.
Toward the end of the episode, as they’re about to make peanut butter cup cookies, Fischer reveals that because of the limitations of quarantine cooking, there is no peanut butter, so he’s making them with almond butter.
But in entertainment, there’s always peanut butter. If you like Schumer, there are 39 episodes of her sketch comedy show, Inside Amy Schumer; four hour-long comedy specials; four movies; and she’s in the fifth season of her podcast, Amy Schumer Presents: 3 Girls, 1 Keith. If what you’re in the mood for is a soothing cooking show, the pantry is always stocked with those too. Even new ones shot in quarantine.
You never have to settle for almond butter if what you want is peanut butter.