Just when you think entertainment and celebrity culture cannot get any more surreal, it does. The last few days have seen: professional health officials in several countries feeling obliged to contradict a tweet by Nicki Minaj about her cousin’s friend’s swollen testicles; comedian Larry David being grumpy at unlikely public events; and “inventive” interpretations of the “American independence” theme at the Met Gala, from political slogans on backsides to Kim Kardashian’s head-to-toe black Balenciaga. (Her look reminded me of when the boys in my home town used to put black socks over their trainers to get past the bouncers at the local club, which had a strict shoes-only dress code.) After more than a year of lockdowns, and therefore limited opportunities to shine, famous people are putting themselves out there with gusto.

Nowhere has this chaotic energy been more apparent than in the saga of The Activist, which has been as compelling as a novel, albeit one that would be considered a bit too far-fetched. To recap, American television network CBS announced a new reality show called The Activist, which would pit six political activists against each other in a competition format, measuring their “successes” by online engagement, social media metrics and the judgments of the panel: noted grassroots organisers Julianne Hough, Priyanka Chopra and Usher. The final challenge, a showstopper, if you will, would have seen contestants lobbying at the forthcoming G20 in Rome.

Unsurprisingly, there was a backlash to end all backlashes and one that ended The Activist as it was supposed to be. Usually, I’d argue that you should see a show before you judge it, but this one defies all common sense. It’s as if The X Factor decided to to find Britain’s Next Top Doctor, with qualifications optional, so long as there’s a good sob story to carry the winner to victory.

I feel for the activists involved. Plenty of more thoughtful critics pointed out that the show was exploiting an underfunded arena and that enforced competition is not really in keeping with community-minded work. Inevitably, theproducers announced that The Activist would no longer air as planned, but would be reshot as a one-hour documentary, with each contestant receiving a cash grant. Chopra posted a message on Friday admitting that the show had got it wrong. Hough had posted a similar statement earlier in the week, saying she had listened to the criticism. “I do not claim to be an activist and wholeheartedly agree that the judging aspect of the show missed the mark,” she wrote. No doubt the online engagement and social media metrics were excellent.

The understudy’s hour has come

Mark Oxtoby and Christopher Lloyd
Mark Oxtoby and Christopher Lloyd take a curtain call for Back to the Future: The Musical. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for McFly Productions Ltd

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the theatre, for the first time since March 2020. Back then, the question of whether or not it was a good idea to sit in a room crammed full of people somewhat tainted the evening’s entertainment. This was a different experience, at a newly built outdoor theatre. But the pandemic continues to reverberate. Before the play began, one of the actors came on stage to announce that not one, not two, but eight of the roles would be played by understudies that night. Despite this, maybe even because of it, it was energetic and magnificent.

In the West End on Monday, the actor Mark Oxtoby took on the part of Doc Brown on opening night of the much-awaited Back to the Future: The Musical. The 1985 film’s Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd, was in the audience, but the original stage actor, Roger Bart, was out for Covid reasons. Oxtoby was the understudy; he only found out that day that he would be stepping into the lead role. By all accounts, it was a triumph. This skin-of-the-teeth ability to adapt in the face of extraordinary disruption is keeping theatre going and we should celebrate the resilience of productions and the understudies.

That’s too many TV cooks for Jamie

Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver: fed up to his back teeth with cookery shows. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Jamie Oliver, currently presenting a cooking show on television, has told the Radio Times that he “tends not to” watch cooking shows on television. (In other news, busman not so keen on holidays.) He suggested that such shows no longer take risks with new ideas. “There’s extraordinary talent out there, but they’re making their own content on YouTube,” he said.

It’s true that cooking programmes are not as vital as they were. We are far from the instructional days of Delia Smith’s long reign. (Delia, with excellent foresight, effectively resigned from TV in 2013, to set up an online cookery school.) We are decades on from the bish bash bosh of Jamie’s arrival, when you couldn’t eat anything without a generous splosh of balsamic vinegar. MasterChef and Bake Off are competitions, and solid entertainment, while we seem to seek familiarity and comfort from the few remaining TV chefs who show us how to make things. It doesn’t feel as if there is a space for anything innovative.

That’s a shame, and an oversight, because food TV is more popular than ever, from celebrity-fronted foodie travelogues to 12-part Netflix series about far-flung restaurants that serve only fermented heritage tomatoes (that one is yet to be commissioned, but surely it’s in the works). In Cooked, one of his many brilliant books on food, the American author Michael Pollan is excellent on what he calls “the curious paradox” of people spending less time than ever cooking and preparing food, but more time than ever watching it on screens. Surely it’s time for a new approach, especially as the internet already has the talent on the hob.

Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist

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