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 V.21 No.14 | April 5 - 11, 2012 
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Idiot Box

There’s Always Room for Jell-O

“Sweet Genius” on Food Network

It must be hard filling 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a particular type of programming. Which is probably why Syfy Channel hardly has any science fiction on it anymore. And when you try your damnedest to stick to a limited topic, you’re bound to come up with some pretty odd iterations on the theme. Which is why, I suspect, “Sweet Genius” exists on the Food Network.

On the surface, it’s your basic reality show competition. People cook stuff, people get eliminated. No different than “Chopped” or “Worst Cooks in America” or “Food Fight” or “The Great Food Truck Race.” But watch more than a few minutes, and you’ll realize “Sweet Genius” is easily the weirdest thing to air on the food-based network since the original “Iron Chef.”

Let’s start with the host, renowned (I’m gonna take their word for it) pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel. The thin, bald, bespectacled dude with the bizarrely nonspecific accent grins his way though every episode like a villain who relishes watching James Bond die in some horrible way. Instead of torturing superspies, however, Ben-Israel invites four competitors to his Willy Wonka-esque TV studio to prepare “magical and inventive” desserts for his delight. So far, nothing to be too concerned about.

Then come the ingredients. Two by two, they march down the conveyor belt to puzzle and bedevil the contestants. Jelly beans and hot sauce, candied ginger and squid ink, duck fat and fusilli. Every once in a while, the host will toss in a third ingredient, just as the chefs are finishing up their ice creams or puddings or what-have-you. Now you must add ... pretzel rods! Dance, little confectioners, dance to my mad whims!

The icing on Ben-Israel’s weirdo cake comes in the form of “inspirations.” Not only do contestants have to make a dessert from strawberry Pop-Tarts and pumpkin seeds, it must be inspired by goldfish. Or ballet dancers. Or diamonds. Or a jack-in-the-box. You ever try to make jack-in-the-box brownies? It ain’t easy, bub.

While the contestants sweat and panic trying to figure out how to add salt-and-vinegar potato chips to their already surreal creations, Ben-Israel purses his lips, arches his tiny eyebrows and coos like the mutant offspring of Dr. Evil and Dana Carvey’s Church Lady from “Saturday Night Live.” Dig a bit into his background and you’ll see he served as a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force and was a successful modern dancer before becoming owner and executive chef at Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in New York City. Dig any deeper and men in dark trench coats that smell faintly of marzipan show up at your door one night and haul you off, never to be seen again.

After each round, the I-can’t-believe-this-isn’t-disgusting creations are taste-tested by Ben-Israel himself. (No guest judges for this sweet genius.) Winners are heartily congratulated. Losers lope off, their heads hanging in shame. The last person standing gets $10,000. And the pride of having survived TV’s weirdest cooking show.

“Sweet Genius” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Food Network.

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