Brad Leone has never heard of a dosa.
It’s the 70th episode of Brad Leone’s fermentation show “It’s Alive!” on Bon Appétit’s wildly popular Youtube channel and the guest is Sohla El-Waylly, the funny, inventive, and highly overqualified assistant food editor who has become a frequent fixture on the channel. She is here to teach Brad how to make a dosa, a South Asian crepe made with a fermented batter, because according to this video––though he is the test kitchen manager at one of best known food publications in the world and the longtime host of a fermentation show–-he’s never heard of a dosa.
Last week, five months after she taught Leone what a dosa was, and four months after she logged onto Instagram to post a series of stories which peeled back the curtain of Bon Appétit’s performance of harmony to reveal a reality of rampant structural racism, Vulture published a profile on El-Waylly, checking in with her after her departure from Bon Appétit.
She’s doing well. El-Waylly has a new column and a new Youtube show of her own that gives her free reign to show off her significant talents and experimental sensibility on a series of wacky food challenges like “make mac and cheese but 18th century style.” She’s also done putting up with mediocrity. In reference to the popularity of Leone’s show, El-Waylly made her stance clear: “For some reason, people like watching a big dumb white guy. But why? What does that say about the audience? Why do you want to watch this incompetent white man when we have one in the fucking Oval Office?”
James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News is a movie about what happens when the smartest people in the room are faced with an audience that just wants to see a big dumb white guy. The big dumb white guy in question is Tom Grunick (William Hurt) who has just been hired as an anchorman at the Washington, D.C. office of the major television news network where Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) and Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) are, respectively, the senior producer and a reporter with anchorman ambitions. Both of them are fantastic at what they do and rigid in their journalistic ethics. They are best friends.
When Jane and Tom first meet at a news media conference, Jane doesn’t yet know that this man is about to become her colleague. She knows, from his self-conscious whining, that he is uneducated, inexperienced and he can’t write. He’s risen up quickly through the ranks to the position of anchor on the power of his good looks and the fan mail he’s received on account of it. He feels guilty, but not enough to seek a solution, only absolution and he thinks Jane could be the one to give him that. Tom is, in short, everything Jane and Aaron despise, and even though Jane sees through him immediately, she still wants to sleep with him.
Like so many others (6 million other subscribers, to be precise), I was easily seduced by Bon Appetit and Leone, though I should have known better than to fall so easily for their vision of the workplace as a family. Before the channel’s collapse, I found Leone’s buoyant enthusiasm completely charming. He’s tall, affable, and dresses like a lumberjack, calling to mind laid back TV boyfriends like Sex and the City’s Aidan Shaw or Jason Segel’s Marshall Eriksen in How I Met Your Mother. His look says “hey let’s grab a craft beer” or “I am your boyfriend and I have built you this end table.” When he produces a decent dosa under El-Waylly’s careful instruction, Leone is over the moon, bouncing around his kitchen merrily, showing El-Waylly his end product with the same energy as a kid pleased with an art project, calling for his family to come take a bite before he finishes it all.
The appeal of the ‘big dumb white guy’ lies in the pure, boundless excitement which can only come with a life lived totally unencumbered. Tom Grunick shares Leone’s boyish charm, and he brings it out in full force the night he anchors a report on Libya for which he is utterly unprepared. In anticipation of Tom’s ineptitude, Jane is ready to feed him everything he needs to know via earpiece and they fall easily, surprisingly, into a charged rhythm between producer and anchor. There is a special magic to the combination of Jane’s extreme competence and Tom’s talent for commanding the camera and quickly regurgitating Jane’s information seamlessly without missing a beat. High from the triumph of their segment, Tom finds Jane in the office sitting in a rolling chair and pulls her toward him by the armrests. “You’re an amazing woman,” he says, inches from her face and because he’s so tall he has to get down on his knees to be face-to-face with her (it is important to mention here that Holly Hunter is 5’2 and William Hurt is 6’2). He keeps bobbing back and forth, pulling her away and back toward him excitedly, like if a drinking bird toy was very, very hot. “It was like great sex,” he practically growls, referring to their perfect chemistry. Jane is so shocked and exhilarated that her head falls back and she lets out an involuntary, breathless gasp.
Just when it seems like Jane is prepared to let go of her many inhibitions and allow herself just this one thing, this stupid man who likes her, Aaron Altman is there to puncture the fantasy. Aaron is the kind of guy people don’t like to watch. His looks are a matter of acquired taste and his intelligence veers too easily into condescension. Tom never wages any kind of campaign of sabotage against him, in fact, before Aaron is set to anchor the weekend news for the first time, Tom comes to his aid with helpful advice about how to sit on his jacket to give his shoulders a good line on camera and where to direct his eyes to project an air of confidence. Yet for all his niceness, Tom Grunick’s mere presence on the news sends a message about what media values, which is star power with a personal touch, no need for a rigorous grasp of current events.
Eventually, Aaron explodes, partly because of his strict journalistic code and partly because he is in love with Jane and can’t stand that she kind of loves Tom.
“Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil,” he tells Jane. “What do you think the devil’s going to look like if he’s around? . . . He will be attractive. He will be nice and helpful . . . He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He’ll just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they’re important just a tiny little bit.”
Brad Leone and the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen represent a logical endpoint of the future Broadcast News envisioned back in 1987, though Youtube and food journalism is a very different world than Brooks depicted. In the personality-driven world of Youtube, relatability is better for views than expertise and experience. Bon Appetit’s video brand was defined by niceness, as epitomized by Leone’s good-humored zeal, easy viewing that mirrored the calm rhythms of properties like The Great British Bake-off and Terrace House (another wholesome seeming show with a dark underbelly). The problem is that sometimes niceness sits at the opposite end of the greater good.
In the end, Jane doesn’t pick Tom (she doesn’t pick Aaron either). The breaking point is a tiny thing but it is everything to Jane. She finds out that Tom has falsified a segment he produced on date rape. What was broadcast to the world was Tom shedding a tear in real time in response to his interviewee’s painful story. What really happened is that Tom nearly cried, so when the interview was over, he went back to shoot himself crying a single, lovely, untrue tear and edited it in later. So even though it breaks her heart, Jane doesn’t pick Tom.
Toward the end of the Vulture piece, El-Waylly says, through tears, that it isn’t enough for her to just be here anymore: she wants more. In demanding more, she’s had to go up against a massive media company, Condé Nast, with no assurance that there would be a place for her in the food world waiting on the other side. Jane Craig demands more when she walks away from what could be a perfectly nice life with Tom Grunick and chooses the harder, lonelier path. Perhaps it’s about time we, the audience, choose the hard thing too.
by Miyako Singer
Miyako Singer (she/her) is currently located in Oakland, CA. She’s written for The Daily Californian and Flash Thrive and hosts a podcast about theme parks called Theme Park Trash. Some of her favourite movies are When Harry Met Sally, Reds, and True Grit (2010). You can find her on Letterboxd and Twitter, where she is patiently awaiting James Cameron’s Avatars 2-5.