Monday night--the last night that anyone watching season two would have the chance to see an ordinary old run of the mill MasterChef, before the series exploded into sparks and pinwheels this evening with the spectacular two-hour MasterChef finale that mothers kept their children home from night school for--it was Suzy's turn to bite it. As head of a two-person team with Christian as her lieutenant, she decided to serve a "Thanksgiving"-themed meal with duck, while Adrien and Jennifer whipped up prawns with lobster, corn, and avocado. The special team of judges brought in for the occasion were not amused by the simplicity of Suzy's concept. They had, after all, come a long way, apparently flying in from overseas via helicopter, while "Ride of the Valkyries" thundered in their eardrums. Considering their bona fides as international sophisticates, I thought Suzy might have been lucky that they didn't listen to her explain that she was welcoming them to these shores by serving them Thanksgiving dinner in late summer and demand to know what she had against the Native Americans.
The guests in question were regular judges on the French, Israeli, and Indian versions of MasterChef. While waiting for them to dock their chopper, Graham killed time by trying to impress upon the contestants what a big deal MasterChef is in the rest of the world. It was reminiscent of those tributes to the metric system that American kids used to have to listen to before everyone stopped kidding themselves that we were ever going to hop on board that train. "In France," Graham hyperventilated, "it's the number one show every time it airs. In Israel, it was the highest rated non-sports show of the decade. It's a smash hit in India, where over twenty million people tuned in for the finale."
This was all very interesting, but it raised the question, why isn't MasterChef a comparable phenomenon here in the States? I enjoy the show, always have, and I was happy that tonight's finale ended with the promise of another season to come next year. But I certainly don't get the impression that it's a water cooler sensation on the order of American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance or Project Runway or, once upon a time, America's Next Top Model, or that it's generated the kind of cultish buzz that attached itself to the first season of the mysteriously M.I.A. Work of Art. That might not be a problem with a different kind of show, but there's something forlorn about a talent contest show that doesn't get people talking, where you don't have that feeling that the nation is on the edge of its collective seat waiting to see who'll be crowned the winner. Gordon is always referring to the greatest this or that "in MasterChef history", as if there were decades of tradition to refer back to; Joe is always getting sniffy about how what he's been served scarcely comes up to the standards we've all come to expect in a competition of this caliber. Who are they trying to convince, us or themselves?
Maybe the problem is simply that you can only get so excited looking at other people taste food and announcing that it's either touched with genius or a plateful of garbage. When people sing or dance or design clothes or pose for photographs or graft the back end of a stuffed zebra onto the chassis of a fire truck, you can form an opinion about what they're doing and then scream at the TV when the judges disagree with you. (To be honestly, I personally have to take the judges' word for it a lot of the time on Project Runway. Maybe that's a mistake, given how many times my girlfriend has assured me that they're full of shit.) But until some serious technological advances come along, there's not much of a way to seriously participate in a cooking competition show like that, besides saying, "Huh, that sure looks good." Along the way, you learn something about various techniques and about what never to do under any circumstances, unless you enjoy having Joe look at you as he were Pope Paul V and you were a cockroach that strongly reminded him of Galileo.
That means that the character element is very, very important on this show. Since MasterChef, unlike Top Chef, never follows the contestants home to a dorm where they've been billeted and may flip out and start flirting or trying to shave each other's heads at a moment's notice, the character stuff has to come through in the course of the challenges, possibly coloring the cooking process, which is a classy way to handle it. And, although it's nice to have likable people to root for, just as a safety feature to maintain the viewer's interest, you probably want a few raging assholes in the mix for flavor. It speaks well of MasterChef's seriousness of intent that the biggest and longest-lived asshole on the show this season, Christian, also seemed to be one of the most impressive cooks. You never thought that they were bending procedure a little to keep him around past his sell-by date as a contestant, rather than lose what he brought to the show in terms of entertainment value.
For the challenge that winnowed the ranks down to the final two, Adrien was given first pick of three ingredients especially favored by Joe: octopus, mushrooms, and veal. Adrien picked the octopus, on the theory that it would really piss off Seafood Boy, A.K.A. Christian. It did, but you had to wonder if selecting such a notoriously difficult ingredient would come back to bite him on the ass. Christian, who had next pick, chose the veal, specifically because he thought that it would destroy Jennifer to stick her with the 'shrooms. It turned out that she was a mushroom freak from way back and couldn't have been happier about his throwing her in the briar patch.
While they were in the pantry, all the previously ejected contestants from this season were herded into the kitchen, and a few of them took questions from the floor--Max, you'll be happy to know, is still an arrogant, fish-eyed little prick-- before going up on the balcony to watch the action. They all did well, but it was Christian that got cut loose. The milky bubble that obscures the movement of people's lips when they're saying something naughty was pressed into service when Gordon called out Jennifer's name instead of them, and he followed that up by giving her the most joylessly insincere hug seen on television since Frank Sinatra brought Dean Martin out on stage during the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon and told him and Jer to make up right there on the spot, or else. Christian tore off his apron--for a moment I thought he was going to throw it on the floor and stomp on it--and then he and Gordon took turns calling each other an arrogant [bleep!], but it was All in Good Fun. He was not invited to go up on the balcony and join his old friends, probably for fear that they might throw him over the rail.
It would be churlish to say that the final round suffered a little because both of the remaining contestants, Jennifer and Adrien, were likable and clearly talented and hard-working, and both did well enough that the judges seemed genuinely pleased with their labors and had to pull out a squeaker. From what was said about them, there seemed to be little enough difference in quality between their appetizers and entrees that it counted for something that Jennifer's stuffed quail was more of a feat to have pulled off than Adrien's beer braised short ribs, so that when neither of them wowed anyone with their desserts, it was all but preordained that Jennifer would take the win. I salute her, and look forward to next season. By which time maybe Fox can at least perfect a line of scratch and sniff cards.
- Line that best showed determination to make the best you can with the few words that your brain can summon up in a moment of stress: Christian's "This is the final dish you're gonna make before the finale if you make it."
- Put-down that I'm going to just take it on faith would have struck me as a killer line if I were more of a foodie: Suzy's "1982 called, they want their cauliflower medley back!"
- Line that it's most impressive that someone heard said about their food and then managed to suck it up and stick around to make it into the finale: Gordon's "It's like you got ahold of my granddad and put his colostomy bag on your plate."