MasterChef's second season debuts tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern. Episode two airs tomorrow night at the same time.
The story goes in my family that my grandfather watched only the opening parade of contestants in the Miss America pageant and was always able to pick the winner based on just watching the 51 girls (don’t forget D.C.!) wandering around on a stage. I have no idea if this is true or not—I never watched a Miss America pageant with him—but it’s one of those things that makes a nice story, a fine family legend.
This is pretty much all I can think about when I watch a competition reality show at this point. The format has gotten so hidebound that predicting not only who’s going to win (or at least who the top two or three will be) but who’s going to get which story arcs has become far too easy, even for someone who doesn’t watch a lot of reality TV (which would be myself). Was there anyone who didn’t realize Scotty McCreery would probably win American Idol this season? Or anyone who didn’t realize very early on that Rob was going to dominate the latest season of Survivor? (That season, at least, was wildly entertaining, with Rob’s achievement becoming the reality show equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak.)
We’ve seen so many shows like this at this point that the producers’ narratives, the way editing is used to advance certain storylines, and the selective decisions about which contestants to promote and which to ignore all combine to help us know almost exactly what’s going to happen. This can be comforting, in a way, since knowing what’s coming so you won’t be surprised is its own kind of pleasure (I still get excited right before Ryan announces the Idol winner, even though I never vote, barely watch anymore, and just don’t give a shit).
All of this brings me to MasterChef, a show I rather enjoyed last summer but one that has clearly been trying to figure out just what its identity should be. Last season, the show seemed hopelessly torn between being an inspirational reality show crossed with an educational cooking show or yet another Gordon Ramsay show, where he yells at people and calls them names. Ramsay, of course, knows a lot about food and the restaurant business and came to fame across the Atlantic for being a fiery tempered man who was also capable of actually helping people (watching the British version of Kitchen Nightmares compared to the American one is a revelation). Here, of course, he came to fame thanks to Hell’s Kitchen, and every other show he’s been involved with since has sunk, eventually, into the Gordon Ramsay Is Mean show.
But this tension made season one fun. Plus, it was such a stripped down little show—lasting but eight episodes!—that it reduced a lot of reality show elements to their pure essence. Sure, it was pretty obvious which chefs were going to do well and which were going to struggle, but by burning everything down to its most basic ingredients, the show became lean and mean. Plus, the lessons—about things like how to chop an onion—were consistently interesting and engaging, and Ramsay clearly enjoyed playing culinary instructor to America. It wasn’t the greatest show ever, but its ratings rose slightly from a disappointing premiere, and that was almost entirely due to how well it blended the idea of a cooking reality show with an American Idol-style reality show.
Well, MasterChef has become a tentpole of Fox’s summer strategy this year, and that may have hurt it. Granted, I’ve only seen the first two episodes—the audition episodes—but they seem simultaneously more predictable and less interesting than last year’s comparable episodes. It's bloated and over-obvious, now, where season one was lean and mean. Last season featured a wide variety of intriguing personalities, designed to give the casting department maximum flexibility in the sort of cast it would end up with. This season, however, the audition episodes veer erratically between freaks who can’t cook and think they can to people who are unexpectedly good at cooking. It’s like the worst elements of the Idol audition episodes mixed together with the Susan Boyle X Factor audition over and over and over again. Will this goofy Southern man know his way around an alligator fillet? Of course he will! Can this single dad who turned his life around impress the judges? You bet. Even the surprise acceptances aren’t really surprising, since the show unfailingly cuts to commercial when it’s going to have Gordon go against the better judgment of one of the other two judges and let someone through to the next round. It’ll end on a moment of seeming disappointment, of crushed dreams, then come right back to let the happiness in. It’s a format that’s been used for ages now, and it needs to go away soon.
Maybe this would all work stretched out over two weeks, but aired in rapid succession, the audition episodes eventually become numbing and repetitive. (And it’s not like viewers at home won’t have the same problem; Fox has chosen to air both episodes on consecutive nights for some reason.) Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen persona is grating and loathsome, but I’d almost rather have that than this one, where he and the other judges conspire to make virtually every pretty woman who comes before them cry before letting them go on to the next round. It’s all a horrifying example of reality show manipulation, and the show sees nothing wrong with leaning on the sap button as heavily as it can. There are a couple of surprising eliminations or acceptances, but for the most part, you’ll be able to tell who’s going through and who’s going home thanks to the sheer ubiquity of this kind of reality show in our culture.
That said, I still enjoy the show on some base level. It still has the best shots of prepared food this side of Top Chef (watching this show on an empty stomach is not advised), and I think the three judges can make a pretty entertaining trio, particularly when one of them goes gaga for something the other two don’t like (Ramsay’s ecstasy over an unconventional sausage roll in tomorrow night’s episode is a great example of this). Italian food expert Joe Bastianich actually might be one of the better judges in reality TV right now. He’s a dick, sure, and he can be uncompromising about what he thinks good food tastes like, but he expresses his opinions succinctly and intelligently, and you always know exactly why he feels the way he does. (Graham Elliot mostly seems to be there to like everything everyone does.)
And there’s still that very central and perfect concept. On some level, nearly everybody has a certain dish they feel they prepare better than anyone else. One of the central appeals of American Idol was that everybody can sing; it’s only a few of us that do it well. And that’s the central appeal here as well. Could you impress these three if you made your signature dish for them? Of course you could! When you take the cooking competition show out of the world of professional chefs and expand it to amateurs, you’re bound to get some interesting personalities and dishes—like those alligator medallions—just as you’re bound to get some real kooks. The show’s biggest problem is a problem the entire genre has at this point: Like my grandfather, when I watched these two episodes, I was pretty sure I could call who was going to win the whole show, based on the story arc being set up for this person, and if that person isn’t in the final group of contestants, I’ll eat my hat. It’s hard to be surprised by a reality show, but MasterChef pulls off the expected trappings better than most.
- We’re thinking about adding this show week to week, particularly since the competition rounds are so much more entertaining than the audition rounds. If you’d be interested in seeing that, let us know.