In its eagerness to have itself declared an American institution, MasterChef couldn’t wait a few weeks until the Fourth of July to do something for our nation’s troops. On Monday’s episode, for the first road-trip team challenge of the season, the contestants were trucked out to the desert, divided into two groups (under the competing leadership of Dave and Frank), and instructed to prepare lunch for 201 Marines who’d be turning up in a couple of hours. The Marines themselves would decide who was the winner. Why 201? Because if an even 200 warriors ate out on Fox’s nickel and the voting came down to a perfect tie, what were the judges supposed to do, ask them to come back for dinner? Gordon, Joe, and Graham did not get where they are by not thinking about the small details.
The general consensus, at least among those whose comments were thought worthy of inclusion in the finished product by the editors, is that the cocksure Frank is the team leader you want to be working for. Dave, he of the weird red spot on his forehead, is dissed by one suspicious cook because “I’ve never seen anyone with such infectious negative energy.” At least Dave isn’t one of those self-undermining ego freaks who are reluctant to work with those talented enough to seem threatening. Explaining why he makes the calls he does while picking the members for his Red Team, he tells the camera, “Being a good leader means picking people who are better than you, so you don’t have to work as hard.” In some alternate universe, that’s a perfectly acceptable definition of “delegating authority.” While Frank decides to impress the troops with his Italian cuisine, Dave figures that they’d really like some “good, hearty” food and sets his people to preparing thick-cut pork chops with barbecue sauce. On the one hand, this seems to give him an edge over those diners (and they look to be in the majority) who didn’t enlist in the Corps after flunking out of culinary school. On the other hand, when it becomes clear that time issues are making it difficult for his team to have the pork properly cooked, he’s the one who had to explain to a livid Gordon Ramsay why he’s trying to give a bunch of freedom’s defenders trichinosis.
Not that he even seems to notice, but Dave’s secret weapon is Becky, who jumps in with both feet and takes charge of streamlining the operation while Dave—again, at least to hear the editor tell it—spends much of the day wandering in circles, gazing raptly at interesting cloud formations. While her teammate Cowboy Mike does his bit, flattening the chops by banging on them with a skillet, Becky yells, “I need pork on this grill right now!”—which, in some alternate universe, is a famous line from a pornographic movie. In the end, the Marines elect the Red Team their favorite over Frank’s Blue Team, a decision that Frank says comes down to their preference for simpler fare, though he, too, has staffing problems. While his decision to put the sightless Christine on the serving line can be viewed as admirably progressive-minded, the fact is that not everybody enjoys having the server feel their food with her fingers to make sure that she’s about to drop something on a free area of the tray and not in the dirt. While still preparing the meal, Michael is moved to drop Christina’s name during this episode’s only use of the venerable “throwing so-and-so under the bus” trope. When the judges point out that the unseasoned mushrooms he’s carelessly stirring around look like shit, he says that, while he hates to throw Christine under the bus, he has to point out that, while it’s true that he didn’t season the mushrooms he’s cooking, she didn’t season them either.
Everyone heads back to the kitchen, where the members of the Blue Team are required to fight for the right to stay around by cooking apple pies. Having failed to do his part to keep Marines fed, Michael executes a goddamned nightmare vision of an apple pie, and is sent home before he can wipe his ass with the flag or talk shit about George Washington’s grandmother. Stepping into the vacuum tonight is Ryan, who wins the Mystery Box challenge and takes the opportunity to put himself out there as this season’s man-you-love-to-hate super-villain. As his reward for winning is to decide what key ingredient everyone else will have to cook with in the main challenge, and also which of his rivals will get to use fresh ingredients and which ones will have to settle for canned. To say that Ryan isn’t shy about trying to shaft the contestants he views as threats while trying to boost the prospects of those he clearly views as cloddish and less talented than himself would be to undersell it. Or, as Monti puts it: “What kind of [bleep!] gives a live crab to a blind chick!?”
Ryan’s Ming The Merciless act does more to drag the episode down than enliven it. For one thing, his material is tired: “It’s time to throw some people under the bus, right? Bus driver, coming through!” But the real problem is that he embraces the role of evil genius wholeheartedly, but he’s miscast himself. He’s more annoying than anything else, so it’s more embarrassing than fun to watch him literally wring his hands and cackle gleefully at how cleverly he thinks he’s messed with his opponents’ chances. There’s also the fact that he’s just flat-out not good at cleverly messing with people; the cooks he’s stuck with canned crab bitch and grumble about it for a few minutes, then they get down to business, and several of them show that he’s right to be afraid of them. The winner is the aforementioned blind chick, Christine, who comes through her trial of fire with a dish that, the judges agree, is not just supernaturally delicious but so pleasing to the eye it’s too bad that she herself can’t see it.
The evictee is the friendly, well-meaning space case Helene, but the loser who creates the greatest impression is Tali, whom Ryan regards as his sidekick (or, to use the expression that he himself uses relentlessly and mercilessly, his “partner in crime”), and whom he tries to help out by hooking him up with a $60 live crab that Tali is proud of having had no idea what to do with. “It’s just stupid!” is Gordon’s verdict on his dish, before he’s even tasted it. “[Bleep!]” is Joe’s. Tali is unmoved by their harsh verdict. “They’re not seeing the art behind the plate here,” he says in voice-over while dragging his slop bucket back to his station without even looking a little as if his tail is between his legs. “My stuff is so good, they can’t see the potential.” I have no idea what that’s even supposed to mean, which is par for the course for Tali, who seems to have been invited aboard this season as a public kindness, to give his usual neighbors a break from having to see his hat. Gordon tells Tali to his face that he’s the most confused person on the show. “Before brilliance comes madness,” says Tali, proving that he’d probably be the most confused person in the room even if he were checked into Bellevue.
- “Holy [bleep!], I’m in the top 15!” Dream big, Monti.
- Tanya, confronting a plate of offal: “There’s balls and there’s a brain and there’s a massive tongue.” Hey, it sounds as if she’s reading from my personals ad. Hi-yoooooo!