Sci&Tech Editor Sophie Webb delves into the mystery of the missing Hell’s Kitchen contestant, drawing upon the concept of the ‘lost TV’ industry

Written by Sophie Webb
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Hell’s Kitchen has been running on American TV since 2005, in which Gordon Ramsay imposes a stressful working kitchen environment on a new group of aspiring chefs each year. Aside from producing some memes about lamb sauce, the show has since reached its 22nd season, seemingly without incident. However, one contestant in particular has achieved the status of Internet notoriety, without even showing his face in the final, televised version of the series. 

Season three, first broadcast in 2007, featured 12 contestants overall – however, this did not appear to be the case in the season’s opening episode. Just about visible in the background of several shots was ‘JR’, the mysterious thirteenth contestant. He is never referred to by name, but his presence looms large. During the ‘signature dish’ challenge, 13 bowls are laid out in front of Ramsay, despite the show’s insistence that there are only 12 contestants taking part. Occasionally you can catch a glimpse of JR’s elbow. When contestants’ coats are hung up upon elimination, one of the coats appears to belong to ‘JR’. JR is never to be seen again after the first episode, and he did not feature in any promotional material for the season. 

JR is one of thousands of mysteries discussed daily on the Lost Media Wiki (LMW), a treasure trove of media

JR is one of thousands of mysteries discussed daily on the Lost Media Wiki (LMW), a treasure trove of media which is no longer accessible to the public for numerous reasons. Perhaps a series from the 1990s was cancelled prematurely and never released on video, or perhaps a network had a series removed from its archives due to controversy. The database is free to view online and has something for everyone: regional versions of famous children’s series such as Thomas the Tank Engine, early builds of video games which never saw the light of day, creepy late-night adverts that you can just about remember from childhood. 

Arguably, the purpose of the database is cultural preservation. Its editors have made it their life’s work to outsource the recovery of this media. People comb through old boxes of DVDs and cassette tapes in search of the opening sequence of that one animated TV series from the 1980s that only exists in Polish. When the missing material has been successfully located, it receives its own entry in the database for others to appreciate its second lease of life. 

But why is lost TV such an industry online? After all, it’s not even a physical media to enjoy, it’s an absence of one. Preservation of our cultural artworks – game shows and telenovelas and PSAs – may serve as a call to action, as may the allure of the missing. People evidently enjoy the detective work of unearthing what was lost, not necessarily so that it can be viewed in the light of 2023, but perhaps just for the satisfaction of finding it. 

To think of how easily a piece of TV media can become inaccessible is to reckon with its legacy

To think of how easily a piece of TV media can become inaccessible is to reckon with its legacy: a famous example is of the 97 episodes of Doctor Who no longer accessible in their complete form. Several of these episodes still exist as audio, and the resulting clamour to reconstruct these episodes in some way, typically via animation, demonstrates the potent desire to revive lost TV, to affirm that it existed and that we remember it. Even partially recovering lost series – a silent episode here, a screenshot there – is seen as a triumph in the forums of the LMW. If we are able to rescue almost 100 episodes of Doctor Who, are we able to bring home Hell’s Kitchen’s ‘JR’? 

​It is unknown for sure what happened partway through the recording of season three, episode one of Hell’s Kitchen. Fox, the network who produce the show, had his footage scrubbed from the episode and, despite the work of the LMW contributors, the question of his identity remains unanswered. And yet, he remains a symbol of the elusive, and of the thrill of interacting with media that would otherwise be lost to oblivion. 

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