MasterChef: “Top 14 Compete”/“Top 13 Compete”
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MasterChef: “Top 14 Compete”/“Top 13 Compete”

The solemnity with which MasterChef presents itself as a landmark event in setting the agenda for home cooking in America is always worth a giggle. Every so often, such-and-such a contestant or feat is described by the narrator as the first such-and-such “in MasterChef history,” in tones more appropriate for announcing the election of the first woman president or the first openly gay poet laureate, or at least the first guy with a superfluous nipple to play Willie Loman, than something unprecedented but probably inevitable happening on a three-year-old cooking -competition show.

That said, it’s nice that Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot take the show’s integrity, and the promises it makes, seriously. How do we know this? Because unlike (say) Project Runway, you don’t see instances when their judgments are baffling if considered apart from the question of what makes good TV. On a lot of reality competition shows, the judges would be very reluctant to break up an act like the Ryan-Tali team. The camera just hates these two jokers, and they openly court its hatred, in different and complementary ways, with Ryan’s “Mwah-hah-hah!” carrying on as if he fancies himself a master schemer, Tali’s deranged overconfidence, and their shared contempt for the other contestants. On Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon would surely be tempted (or encouraged) to think of some reason to keep them both around long enough for them to catch fire as hated Internet characters and pump up the ratings. It’s not as if we at home can taste the food and judge for ourselves. Luckily, there are three guys here who have to be able to look each other in the face the next day, whether or not they could look at themselves in the mirror.

Monday night’s episode is the “Get your ass out of bed at 3:30 A.M. and roll down to the kitchen of this restaurant and crank out the breakfast room service!” challenge. (If the show offered a pithier name for this activity, I missed what it was.) Christina, The First Blind Contestant In MasterChef History and winner of the previous challenge, runs the Red Team; Josh, who came in second, is in charge of the Blue Team. The first thing they have to do is select, playground-style, who will be working under them. As the two master chiefs take turns calling out names, Gordon comments on each selection, sometimes saying, “Good choice,” usually weighing in with a more ambiguous “Wow!” When Christine picks Ryan, who tried to sabotage her last week by arranging for her to have to contend with a live lobster, both Gordon and Graham say, in unison, “Wow!” It is the most unambiguous “wow” ever uttered. It sounds just like, “You gotta be shitting me!” Ryan is the next-to-last contestant to be picked for a team, which seems about right, since of the two contestants who nobody can stomach being around, he has shown some ability to cook. Dead last is, naturally, Tali, who, naturally, is offended and confused, before he remembers that he keeps winding up at the bottom of everything because everyone, including the judges, can’t deal with their jealousy over his brilliant innovations and mad skills.

After a last-minute shuffle that gets Butch and Sundance, I mean Ryan and Tali, together on the Blue Team, the contestants fall to work, with Felix expediting for the Red Team and Monte for the Blues. At first, the Red Team seems to be at a disadvantage, partly due to Felix’s peculiarly uncommunicative expediting style. Everything is moving too slow. The bacon is charred, there isn’t enough Hollandaise sauce prepared, and the chickens are still laying the eggs. By contrast, the spirited and bilingual Monti, a morning person for your ass, is barking out orders and making sure the Blue train runs on time. But when the comment cards are tallied up, Joe reports, 60% of the diners voted for the Red Team, and the Blue Team got 40%.  That, he explains, means the Red Team wins, and it's true: Try though you might, you just can't get around arithmetic. Ryan, whose main contribution to the team effort has been to demonstrate that he can sleep standing up, and Tali are chagrinned that they have to go through the indignity of participating in an elimination challenge, but both agree that there’s an upside: No way in hell is the hated Monti not going home. Always the charmer, Ryan spells it out by chanting, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead! With a capital B!” He’s an asshole, but he did just give someone an ABC an idea for the title of a great new show.

Naturally, once the contestants are back in the MasterChef kitchen, Gordon’s first announcement is that Marti, along with David and Frank, is safe and doesn’t have to take part in the elimination challenge, because her performance as expediter rocked. Those who rocked less hard for the Blue Team have to prepare “a desert that even today terrifies chefs across the world,” a chocolate molten lava cake. Final results: Josh and Anna redeem themselves with excellent cakes, Tali serves up a cake that the judges clearly find lacking in the flavor department, and Ryan serves up a saucer of dark liquid glop. The judges agree that it’s delicious glop, but their Solomonic ruling is that, by virtue of having produced a solid instead of a fluid, Tali has come nearer to successfully completing the challenge by making something that can be accurately termed a “cake.” Realizing that Ryan is going home, David, standing on the walkway high above him, giggles loudly. It’s like one of those stupid dish-TV commercials: “When you’re on a cooking show and act like a tool, you may get to hear the guy you’ve repeatedly accused of having “infectious negative energy giggle at the news of your demise. Don’t hear the guy you’ve repeatedly accused…”

Tali has to soldier on alone in tonight’s episode, which, after a steak-centric Mystery Box challenge that Tanya wins, turns into a full-blown demonstration of why contestants on these cooking shows always start tearing out their hair and gnashing their teeth when they’re forced to make desserts. Tanya, who gets to sit out the elimination challenge, also decides which three contestants will be making strawberry shortcake, which three will be making tiramisu, and which three will be making a trifle. “There’s no way I can screw this up,” Tali declares, before—shockingly—not screwing up his dish. He doesn’t win, but he’s the only person who doesn’t disappoint, except for Marti and the winner, Stacey. Everyone else spins out on the track, except for Christine, whose strawberry shortcake has too many non-strawberry-related elements to it, but who’s let off with a warning. Even Tanya seems remorseful by the end, looking around in horror at the carnage she’s unleased, like some J. Robert Oppenheimer of the pastry cart. Felix, in particular, is so afraid that she might go home that she seems in danger of literally crying her face off, but order is restored when Scott—who for some reason, at some point, and without any detectable change in his features, somehow stops looking like Steve Buscemi and switches over to looking like J. K. Simmons—gets his walking papers and takes it stoically, like a man. It’s a fitting conclusion to what, Felix aside, make for a refreshingly dry-eyed couple of hours of MasterChef.

Stray observations:

  • Frank, pounding out the breakfast service, takes a moment to expound to the camera about how, as a chef, it’s always “important to have passion in your thing.” His soliloquy failed to move the voice at the end of the couch, who was heard to snark, “Oh, yeah, when you order room service at seven in the morning, you really expect there to be a lot of passion in your oatmeal.”
  • Ryan’s proud, going-down-in-flames boast (and explanation for why he can’t make a chocolate molten lava cake): “I’m not a scientist in the kitchen. I’m a magician in the kitchen!”
  • When none of the contestants working on chocolate molten lava cakes has time to experiment sufficiently before shoving something in the oven, Graham notes that they’re “cooking blind.” It would have taken a great deal of self-restraint on the editor’s part to not immediately cut to Christine once that phrase is uttered, and I guess self-restraint just isn’t something he has in abundance.
  • When Ryan is asked, as he’s working on his cake, which of the people on the overhead walkway should be done there sweating it out instead of him, he launches into a lengthy and detailed enumeration of Monti’s perceived failings. Monti, who is right above his head listening to him, gets high marks for refusing to take the bait: At not point does she complain that he’s throwing her under the bus. (Tonight, David, who can’t seem to get his social clues or his clichés quite right, accuses Tanya of throwing him under a train.)
  • Monti, in a moment of frustration: “[Bleep!]” Gordon: “What do you mean, [bleep!]?” Hey, if he doesn’t know…
  • Adding to the mystery of Tali’s acceptable performance in the strawberry shortcake department is the fact that, for the first time since the competition proper started, the top of his head is on view for all to see: His usual maroon topper is gone. I guess working bare-headed is his way of silently grieving for his fallen friend. Either that or Harvey Keitel’s character from Taxi Driver wanted his hat back.

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