One of the best shows on TV doesn’t look like it should be one of the best shows on TV. It’s a reality show, for one. It's stuck beside the premium cable Sunday night lineup. And it’s a part of that genre of “everyman” reality that ran its course in the Bush administration. (Apologies to any fans of Storage Wars: Texas.)
The show in question is Bar Rescue. It’s fucking awesome. And if you haven’t already, you should begin recording it every chance you get.
Hosted all three seasons by “nightlife expert” Jon Taffer, Bar Rescue follows the same basic premise every episode: A bar somewhere in the United States has fallen into disarray. Its owner is always—always!—three months from losing everything. He’s at wit’s end. He has to make the call. Taffer Time.
Taffer arrives on the scene, unannounced. He installs security cameras in the bar and observes the employees’ habits from a large van discreetly parked in front of the establishment. From his van, he’ll send in several moles to personally check out the bar. These moles (seemingly always) order Long Island Iced Teas and some sort of appetizer platter. Sometimes the mole is Taffer’s daughter, and when that happens SHIT GETS GOOD. Woe be any bartender who incorrectly serves Taffer’s daughter.
Inevitably, the staff screws up, and Taffer storms in. Sometimes he reams out the management, sometimes he talks to them calmly. Regardless, things do escalate over the next three days—Taffer essentially runs a bar boot camp, overhauling the menu, training the staff, and pointing out that dead rat carcesses don’t really “fit” in kitchen freezers. He’ll then guide the staff through a soft opening, which nearly always ends with at least one 45-minute ticket time. And it all culminates in a dramatic redesign of the bar. By the episode’s end, the owners are tearfully thanking Taffer for his work, only it’s not as cheesy as Extreme Makeover: Home Decision, because, well, this is a bar, bro.
Bar Rescue is a relatively straightforward reality show. It ends on more or less the same notes, and, like any great work of literature, it hits the same emotional points each episode—comedy, drama, voyeurism. What makes it so great? Glad you’ve asked!
1. Taffer is a hero
Jon Taffer is one of the greatest characters in reality television history. There’s only been 26 aired episodes of Bar Rescue so far, but fuck it, he’s deserving of the honor. I am yet to see someone else on TV go through so many genuine emotions during an hour-long period of television. And I’m yet to see someone else cause a larger positive effect on the people he’s helping.
Taffer will typically start an episode by coming in hot, confronting bar owners and employees who are set in their (incorrect) ways. There’s a reason for this: “Psychologists will tell you that it takes 21 cycles to change human behavior,” he’s said. “I have to teach an employee a new way to do things over the course of 21 shifts. But for the show, I don’t have 21 days — I have five. Five days to reverse hundreds of bad decisions and that’s my challenge in a nutshell. That’s why I’m so aggressive, if I wasn’t, four days later we wouldn’t be anywhere.”
This, for instance, took place at a disgusting Baltimore, Maryland bar called J.A. Murphy’s:
What’s so amazing about the aggression, though, is how (normally) controlled it is. Taffer goes into bars, gets in everyone’s face, but he never crosses the line into ugliness (like Donald Trump or other mean-spirited TV personalities). He’s just not afraid of confrontation. And he’s well-aware of how it can persuade people.
One of the best examples of this comes in season two’s “Owner Ousted,” which took place at Fairfield, Ohio’s Win, Place or Show saloon. Two people owned the bar: A smallish former Naval Officer, Barry Rogers, and a wannabe rock star, Rudy Garcia. This man was absolutely enormous. Taffer began the episode loud, yelling at the Rogers about his bar’s various delinquencies because, he later told the camera, he knew that Rogers’ boot-camp past meant he’d respond well to that kind of leadership. Garcia didn’t take well to this. And it became clear that he was a drag on the bar. So, Taffer sat Garcia and Rogers down, and he convinced the bullied owner to tell the huge guy to sell his share and get out. The confrontation was fucking intense, in a much more real way than, say, a staged Survivor argument. But because Taffer never wavered, his confidence inspired Rogers to kick Garcia out.
Taffer will usually lighten up as each experience proceeds. It’s clear he genuinely cares about the owners who take to his critique, and, when they go through blueprints for redesigns, he usually maps out how life-changing the new design will be. This is always a cool moment.
2. The format is absolutely perfect
Reality television has gotten stale. It began as an attempt to present an accurate version of reality, or at least what reality would be like if seven strangers got in a house and started getting REAL.
It soon branched out into contrived competitions dedicated to finding love—The Bachelor—or survival—Survivor—or a job with Donald Trump—The Apprentice. This branched into an exploration of what would happen if celebrities either got real or participated in contrived competitions—The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, and Celebrity Apprentice—respectively. Its current state is a form of hyper-reality manifested through boring premises—Billy the Exterminator, Storage Wars, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—which is a reaction to the mid-2000s celebreality shows.
Gone, though, are any stakes. And the “boring” shows even seem scripted.
Bar Rescue, though, never really seems scripted. And the stakes are high: Each episode deals directly with people’s livelihoods. Each owner is normally in six-figure debt, and his future quality of life is right there in the brick and mortar of the bar. Taffer and his crew and Spike are actually doing something important each week.
3. You learn something every show.
A quick lesson on why you should NEVER work with friends:
Or why you need to look at yourself for a lack of success, while not blaming outside forces:
Or why, if you ever want someone to run security, you go with a man simply known as Doc:
(I can’t find a picture online of Doc, Jon’s security expert. But trust me. Doc is a fucking dude.)
4. The in-show product placements are hilarious.
There are few things worse in modern entertainment than the heavy-handed product placement. Think James Bond drinking Heineken in Skyfall. Or even the “Old Spice Red Zone” report during college football broadcasts.
Bar Rescue is not immune to these DVR-proof tricks. But they’re so egregious that you end up cracking up. I’m thinking right now of one great moment when mixologist Elayne Duke freaked out over show sponsor Smirnoff occupying a low spot in a bar’s liquor cabinet. “Smirnoff is a PREMIUM liquor,” she said. “It needs to go at the top.”1 The makeovers also always include some series of cocktails that NEED Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum or Smirnoff in order to taste properly.
(Note: The show itself is very funny as a whole. Taffer is like that intense high-school coach you had who never, ever lightens up, so when he finally does show happiness it’s bizarre and hilarious. It’s that same high school experience again: Oh, Coach is smiling! What the fuck?!)
5. These guys are characters
Before he got REALLY famous, Anthony Bourdain wrote a book called Kitchen Confidential. One of the key takeaways from the book was that anyone who chooses to work in a bar or kitchen as a full-time profession has a screw or two loose. Bourdain favorably compared many of his former co-workers to pirates. You get that same sense when watching the lifers at these bars. No one is vanilla. Everyone is kind of crazy. It’s terrific TV.
We’ll end with Ami Benari, owner of the former Denver bar Zanzibar, and utter lunatic. He makes himself known to the viewers by screaming, in the streets of Denver, “FREE BEER!” Later, he’ll defend a strategy of prostituting out his bartenders. If this video doesn’t get you hooked on Bar Rescue, the last 1,500 words were an utter waste.
1I’m probably not remembering this 100% correctly.