One of the biggest challenges MasterChef has come up with this season has been the simple challenge of watching it. I don't mean that it's been hard to watch; it's just that Fox has sort of been daring you to find it. For the past couple weeks, the network schedule has promised eager viewers a new episode every Monday, followed by a rerun of House, O frabjous day! Instead, whenever Monday night has rolled around, we've gotten a repeat (oh, sorry, "encore presentation!") of the previous episode, followed by a new episode. Last night, when it was time for them to show a rerun in place of the new episode that was promised, there was a rerun of the previous episode, followed by, of all things, the scheduled rerun of House. I didn't mind that they reran the previous episode, because I could never get tired of watching Max storm out after turning in his apron and taking out his frustration on that tree. But it meant that, in the event there was a new episode on tonight, it would mean that a single new hour of MasterChef would have to tide me over for the whole week. Is that the kind of world that our Founding Fathers meant for us to live in?
Okay, I don't mean to whine about it; I know there are starving people in China who are stuck watching the same four episodes of Kitchen Confidential over and over. And we did get a new episode of MasterChef tonight. Because somebody at Fox has a sense of humor worthy of Kasper Gutman, those who took the precaution of tuning in at the hour that has previously been reserved for MasterChef had to sit through more of Gordon Ramsay than even Mother Ramsay might prefer. MasterChef was bumped from its usual place in the roster to make room for a rerun of Kitchen Nightmares in which Gordon rolled up his sleeves and set to work making things right at Zeke's, a seafood place in Metairie, Louisiana, which is a fairly pleasant, quiet suburb of New Orleans. I was born in Louisiana and lived in New Orleans for many years, so I actually got into it, though I did get a little frustrated, because Gordon kept saying that this was the first time he'd ever been to New Orleans, and I kept yelling at the set, "You still haven't been to New Orleans, you're in freakin' Metairie!" During the Mardi Gras season, Metairie likes to advertise itself to tourists as the "family-friendly" equivalent of New Orleans. That's like putting a sign outside a strip club boasting that its lap dances are suitable for all ages.
Both Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef are designed to let Gordon show off his caring and nurturing side. His caring and nurturing side looked especially doe-eyed tonight, because the shows kept cutting to commercials for the season premiere of Hell's Kitchen, where his Mr. Hyde side was much in evidence. After you've watched any 30 seconds of that shit, so long as Gordon isn't yelling "This tastes like puke!" in somebody's teary-eyed face, he looks as gentle and supportive as Dana Carvey on his old sketch comedy show, where he played a lactating Bill Clinton. Actually, tonight's episode might have benefited from a frothing tizzy or two. As soon as you heard the announcer promise that "a new rivalry" was about to ignite, you knew that one week had not been enough time for the editor to console himself over the loss of Max. I don't know if Max could cook, because the technology of cooking shows has not yet progressed to the point where I can taste the dishes, but he was an invaluable resource for the camera, always ready to supply a smug expression or a contemptuous sneer when the show needed juicing up and more than capable of inspiring the other chefs to eye-rolling looks of disgust. We may yet look back on him as the glue.
As it happened, I never noticed a new rivalry, certainly not one on the level of Max versus whoever was the last person to win something. Christian did attempt to distinguish himself by acting like a douche, dancing in place, and talking trash to secure himself some camera time, even daring to question the judges' harsh words about his vegetarian mystery challenge dish, which really did look like eight miles of bad road. "Your talent's not matching your arrogance," Gordon told him, and everyone made "Whoaaa!" faces, in recognition of the fact that it's not every day that you get to hear Gordon Ramsay call someone else arrogant. (Well, at least not unless you make it a point to watch an episode of Kitchen Nightmares every day.)
The big challenge of the night was to duplicate a catfish dish from a new cookbook by "America's first MasterChef", adorable li'l Whitney Miller, without being provided with either a recipe or a list of the ingredients. Except for the feisty working class heroine Jennifer, the chefs were given the chance to taste the dish and guess from that which ingredients they'd need. No problem, figured Ben Starr, the eye-popping weirdo who has practically taken over as the show's mascot. "I eat with my eyes," he said, "and I eat with my nose." I hoped he was going to add that he uses his butt crack to pick out his hats, but if he did, the editor didn't let it stand. Not everyone shared his confidence. "I don't cook or eat catfish," sniffed Esther, the one who walked away from a lucrative career in the legal field in order to be told by Joe Bastianich on national TV that her cooking stinks on ice. "Why would I ever eat Southern food?" Hey, did I ever mention that I'm from Louisiana? The bitch is dead to me.
In the end, to the stunned surprise of an entire nation, or at least that segment of it that was sitting on my living room couch, Ben was saluted by the judges for his masterly job and declared one of the two front-runners of the evening. The other was Christian, rebounding nicely from his earlier display of hubris and shitty plating. On the losing end, Jennie was singled out and sent home, which might have been the first time I'd really noticed that she'd survived the audition process. Next week, Christian and Ben will be rewarded for their stellar work by being appointed the captains of two competing teams. I can't shake the feeling that those who will find themselves taking orders from Ben might just as well speed up the inevitable by lying down in the parking lot before the taping and placing their heads behind the tires of the craft services van, but perhaps the show has a surprise in store for me.