“Time flies,” says Luca, “in the MasterChef kitchen.” He got that right. After a perhaps ill-advised spell of lazing through the dog days of summer, getting by on one new episode a week, the show is hurtling towards the finish line, as if it just woke up to find that it had dozed off on the tarmac to find the entire Fox fall schedule (including the mind-boggling spinoff series MasterChef Junior) piling up behind it. Labor Day has come and gone, but MasterChef, like a few other summer stragglers like Under The Dome and Graceland, is still here, blocking a whole entire fresh season of New Girl. Gordon, Graham, Joe, we love you, but we kind of need to find out if Schmidt is still doing it with Merritt Wever. Getting into the spirit, the editor can scarcely wait to reveal that Krissi will be going home in the first hour, tipping his hand by including a clip of her talking about how she’s doing all this for her kid. Doing it for the kids: That’s the MasterChef curse if anything is.
The thrill of seeing Krissi go is severely undercut by some of the most awkward and dim-witted judging in, as the narrator would say, MasterChef history. It’s not the judging itself that’s the problem, it’s the judges’ determination to stick to the script when everyone else has started improvising and gone rogue. The Mystery Box challenge requires that the four remaining cooks break up into teams of two and serve up some seafood and a dessert. Luca and Natasha, it’s made clear, do not like each other, but they’re serious about what they’re doing and they buckle down to their jobs. When Natasha makes a suggestion and Luca counters, “My idea, I think, is much better than yours,” Natasha doesn’t leave the kitchen or knee him in the groin, though the editor does catch her rolling her eyes up into her skull, as if trying to see just how much of her brain has rotted away since it began processing what Luca is saying.
Krissi and Jessie, on the other hand, have communication problems. That’s the polite way of saying that, when Joe quizzes them about what they’re doing, each is a little astonished to hear what the other thinks is going on. Worse, Jessie finds herself laden down with more and more responsibilities as the dishes prove to be farther and farther outside Krissi’s comfort zone. After Jessie suggests that maybe Krissi, the baker, could do the dessert, and Krissi replies that she’s “not comfortable” with that, Jessie snaps: “Babe, you abandoned me on the lobster, so you gotta pick something you can cook.” That tears it. Krissi wanders off-screen and out of the kitchen, only returning after a few minutes once she’s announced—as if her coffin didn’t have enough nails in it—that her son has never seen her quit, and he’s not going to see it now. It’s not clear what she does to help out when she returns, but when she and Jessie present their dishes to the judges, and Jessie admits that, what with having to cook for two, she wasn’t able to find the time to make sure the lamb was cooked all the way through, Krissi lets her mouth hang open and expresses dismay that Jessie would have the sheer gall to serve a great man like Gordon Ramsay raw lamb. To his credit, even Gordon tells Krissi that, under the circumstances, that’s kind of rich.
The idea has been that the two members of the losing team will face each other in the elimination test. Trying to maintain the pretense that the race between the two teams is close, the judges actually argue their respective merits. Graham, showing an impressive amount of gall himself, points out that, while Luca and Natasha did a hell of a job working together, one member of the other team showed the ability to almost pull it all together by herself; doesn’t that make her team worthy of consideration as the winner? Obviously, the logical decision would be to cancel the elimination test, automatically advance Jessie to the final three, and drop-kick Krissi out the side door. It’s not strictly what the rules allow for, but you could say the same for bringing Bri the vegetarian back for a few weeks.
Obviously the show would come up short for time if the judges didn’t hold the elimination test, but the judges also seem to have some misbegotten thing for Krissi, and there’s a suggestion of what it might be when Graham describes the mismatch with Krissi and Jessie this way: “A home cook from Philly with bold flavors” and “the girl with the refined background and social circle in Georgia.” Krissi, in all her 3D obnoxiousness, is a reality-show cartoon of a working-class mom. Maybe the show thinks the braying awfulness of her personality and the way she cuts up for the camera are sort of admirable, because it associates these qualities with blue-collar gumption—a depressingly condescending, even snobbish attitude.
Saying goodbye to Krissi after Joe has bitten the bullet and declared Jessie the winner “by the slightest of margins,” Gordon, who himself has a lot invested in the notion that talent and a bad personality are both an inevitable and a winning combination, basically confirms this by telling her, “You’ve got the right to be arrogant,” because she really can cook. For her part, Krissi gives herself a pat on the back for having kept it real. To tell her that there are people who really are honestly being themselves when they treat other people courteously would be like telling Howard Stern that he isn’t really the only non-hypocrite in the world; there really are some people who aren’t just pretending, but who do like to talk about things besides strippers and penis sizes sometimes.
Coming after that, the second hour—three likable people cooking their hearts out—is as pleasant as any episode of MasterChef this season, and as anticlimactic. First, everyone is challenged to improve on the dish that got them through the auditions; then, the dishes are ranked, with first-placer Jessie given first pick of three killer ingredients, and Natasha second pick. Everybody winds up pretty happy, with Jessie using Kobe beef, Natasha king crab, and Luca Grana Padano, or as Graham calls it, “a huge wheel of dried milk.” Not a romantic about the fine cheeses, apparently. They all do themselves proud, but Jessie does herself just a little bit less proud than the others, leaving Luca and Natasha to go head-to-head in next week’s finale. I think we all know who the smart money’s on, but my heart belongs to Luca.
- Grammar nerd alert: Krissi ostentatiously uses the word “literally” three times in the first hour. Once she uses it incorrectly, when she promises that she is about to literally smash Jessie upside the head with a hot pan. On another occasion, she uses it correctly but, it turns out, with undue optimism. (“I am literally three people away from winning.” Her saying that she literally has such and such amount of time to stick some shit in the oven, I have no problem with, except that it seems kind of redundant. If she didn’t say it, would anyone think that she was only going to figuratively stick it in the oven?
- Trying to build up suspense for the Jessie-Krissi elimination test, Natasha explains why she thinks Krissi has a shot: She’s “a baker, and she’s a fighter, and she doesn’t give up.” It’s every cliché she’s supposed to say about someone like Krissi. Then she remembers that the reason Jessie and Krissi are in the elimination test is that Krissi gave up, and almost right under the wire, she adds, “Usually!”
- After they’ve worked together just long enough to make it into the final three, Luca turns to Natasha and says with a big smile, “Now I hate you again.” I don’t want to give Mrs. Luca anything to worry about, but it’s as close as this show has ever come to a Sam-and-Diane moment.