Back in the old days, when I used to ride my dinosaur to school every morning after enjoying a nutritious, doctor-recommended breakfast of cigarettes, Pop Rocks, and Coke, there was something called “the Saturday morning lineup.” It was TV for children, and was very heavy on “animation," which is what you called programs from Filmation and Hanna-Barbera so you didn't hurt anybody’s feelings. Watching TV was work back then, because almost all of it sucked so! hard! (Nowadays, watching TV is work because there’s so much of that you’re expected to keep up with just to have one foot in the cultural conversation. Some of it’s not even on TV. You watch it on the computer machine.) Consequently, part of the job of the Saturday morning lineup was to help youngsters prepare for the drudgery of adult TV-watching by giving them programs that were a lot like prime time hits, except, you know, for kids.
In one series, the Fonz and the Happy Days gang got ahold of a time machine, which was ironic, since they were the only people who were unlikely to use it to go back in time and kill Garry Marshall. Laverne and Shirley joined the army, presumably because a different network already had the TV rights to Private Benjamin, and there were all these scripts from an aborted Beetle Bailey series just sitting there. Gilligan, the Skipper, and all the rest actually journeyed to another planet, maybe to get away from the Harlem Globetrotters. Advanced scholars of ‘70s crap know of The Barkleys, which set out to answer the question, what if Archie Bunker had Ralph Kramden’s job, or maybe the question is really, what if Ralph Kramden had Archie Bunker’s home life, but anyway, they’re all dogs! Then there was Li’l Charlie’s Angels, in which Li’l Sabrina, Li’l Jill, Li’l Kelly, and Miss Hissy, their talking, skateboarding Siamese cat from the future, used their positions as hall monitors to prove that Principal Pigott was running a narcotics operation out of the science building. Technically, that one was just something I wrote in detention, which helps to explain why episodes still aren’t available through Amazon Instant Video.
If Masterchef Junior had been part of the Saturday morning lineup, it would have counted as one of the greatest things ever, if only because no expense has been spared to make the kids feel as if they’re getting a true, alternate-kids’-universe version of the real TV show, instead of being humored and palmed off with some shoddy knockoff. It’s set in the real MasterChef kitchen, which is a treat for any people who spent last summer watching MasterChef and who doubted their ability to make it from now till next Memorial Day without seeing those ovens again. And the three host-judges are all here: Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich. If this were a typical Saturday-morning lineup knockoff from the ‘70s or ‘80s, there would only be one host, and he’d be Peter Marshall.
So MasterChef Junior really is MasterChef for kids, not some chintzy MasterChef-like substance. The big changes in the format that are detectable from the pilot make sense: Gordon doesn’t do his trademark teasing of the contestants on the chopping block, letting them know right away who’s staying and who’s going without messing with their minds. And the long, drawn-out audition process, which in the adult version gives the producers a chance to show some of the goofier rejects they had to deal with and treat the audience to a good laugh at their expense, has been dispensed with entirely. Instead, while twinkly Disney music is heard, a pack of kids, ranging in age from eight to 13, come roaring into the kitchen while their cheering section of parents and siblings gather on the walkway above their heads, sending them good energy. Since they haven’t had time to develop interesting back stories, their one-on-one interview comments tend to focus on their hopes and dreams. “I’m nine years old,” a girl says, “and when I grow up, I want to be a food critic!” Another says of the grand prize, “I need to win the trophy. It would go perfectly in my room.” The show hopes to get a lot of mileage out of comments like that, and such throwaway images as a shot of a boy jumping as high as he can to get the ingredients he wants from a shelf in the pantry or making Steve Reeves faces while struggling to unscrew the lid off a jar.
For those who know MasterChef prime, or are simply familiar with the fearsome reputation of Gordon Ramsay, the man without whose face and voice no evening of Fox broadcasting is complete, the suspense built into this format is, how will they react to little kids? MasterChef is officially the Fox show where Gordon does his best to be nice, which on many nights means that he says “What a shame!” while spitting something into his napkin instead of screaming “Donkey!!” in someone’s face while waving a skillet. Graham is a sweetheart by nature, but Joe tends to express displeasure by fixing an “I’d kill you if we weren’t being filmed” expression on people while dumping their plates into the garbage. The short answer is that they’re all on their best behavior, but some of them are better at bonding with shorties than others. (Joe confuses one poor kid by telling him that what he’s wearing would make a good poker shirt.) I can see this show becoming more entertaining if there are team challenges and field trips, and we get to see the kids interacting more and responding to new information and experiences. (That last part harder to pull off if the parents are planning to literally hover over the action every step of the way.) The premiere episode feels a little too much like an exercise in spin control, a chance for the most overexposed celebrity chef on TV to show that he can eliminate children from one of his cooking competitions without breaking their tender spirits.
Gordon’s most memorable moments come when he has to deal with young members of the opposite sex, an activity at which he does not always excel, even when age is not a factor. He teases one girl about whether she has a boyfriend, then, lest she think he’s trying to marry her off, assures her that “You can put him on the side, like mustard.” “Hopefully,” she muses, “when I have a boyfriend, he won’t be mustard.” Rather than bring in Cathy Guisewite to rebut, Gordon gets into a debate with another girl, Sarah, over whether men or women make the better cooks. Sarah tells him that she reckons it has to be women, because “even in the olden days, they were cooks, and men were just sitting there, watching TV.” For her part, Sarah perfectly executes a molten lava cake, which gives her as much right to settle this argument as anyone has. If nothing else, MasterChef Junior makes history as the first cooking-competition show in history where the contestants start dancing in the end zone at the news that, for their next challenge, they have to make a dessert.