MasterChef is most enjoyable as a symbolic embodiment of the relaxed, low-pressure vibe that we like to attribute to summer. “Relaxed” and “low-pressure” may not be words that anyone who’s been on the show, and been subjected to Joe’s icy invective and fish-eyed glare, Gordon’s snarl, and Graham’s downcast look of disappointment, would ever think to apply to the experience. But it’s the feeling the viewer gets from turning to Fox twice at the start of every week and being reminded that network real estate is seen as counting for so little in June and July that spreading a show out like this seems as good a use of those two hours as any. Who cares, right? And who cares if the people involved keep making what seem like ridiculously inflated claims about the scale of what they’re doing, based on the fantasy that MasterChef, the ultimate televised battle for supremacy between a bunch of home cooks, is as central to American life as a presidential election or the Super Bowl? It’s just how people talk in the summer, as ridiculous and ultimately meaningless, and instantly forgettable, as—say—the notion that a great many people would want to see Rock Of Ages.
After destroying its own momentum with two weeks of reruns, a programming decision that amounted to hiding, like a scared little punk behind its mother’s skirts, from the Olympics, MasterChef is back, in what feels like shrunken form. It’s now a once-a-week affair, partly because Fox now has two other Gordon Ramsay shows taking up all of Monday night, and even Gordon Ramsay must sometimes worry about spreading himself too thin and wearing out his welcome—or, if he really doesn’t, Fox employs people whose job is to worry about it for him. This means that MasterChef is now bringing up the rear of the Fox-Ramsay train, and, with only six remaining contestants, has less time to show you an ever-more-dwindling group of people trying to distinguish themselves. That may sound like a natural development that makes sense: Now that we’re getting down to the essential core group of likely possible winners, let’s tighten this mother up. But when the show sprawls over two consecutive nights and has too many people in it to keep track of, it’s easier to forgive the dead spaces and things that don’t make sense and concentrate on the high points. When the show is boiled down to one sparsely populated hour that doesn’t make a lot of sense and is almost all dead spaces, what you see is what you get.
Mind you, it’s easy to be grumpy about the show when the challenges aren’t any better thought-out or presented than they are tonight. The cooks are divided into two teams, led by Becky and Frank—who, given the chance to select who they want to work with, end up with a couple of teams that are evenly separated according to gender—and plunked down in the kitchen of a high-profile Los Angeles restaurant, Hatfield’s, and required to crank out meals for 22 diners apiece. (A slight twist is added when both teams have to also prepare competing dishes for Karen and Quinn Hatfield, the husband-and-wife team that own the restaurant.) Marti, in that inimitable way she has of marveling at the sheer improbability of things that makes her the perfect contestant for this show, is seen saying something like, OMG, can you believe that half a dozen home cooks are being put in charge of service at a big hoity-toity restaurant like this!? It is every bit as amazing as she seems to think it is, but maybe not in the way she thinks. Like too many challenges on this show and others like it, it’s a stunt designed to ratchet up the anxiety levels but that doesn’t really give these people much of a chance to demonstrate what they’re good at or what they’re here to be applauded for being able to do well.
As in many a MasterChef challenge, things seem to swing back and forth when it comes to determining who is doing a wizardly job and who’s flailing. But the men somehow need an entire hour before they manage to get their first appetizers out, and when the judges and cooks regroup at the MasterChef kitchen, Joe as good as tells them that, whatever the overall quality of the food, they lost the contest right there at the start: People, he tells them, get angry when they’re made to wait, and people who are angry are that much less likely to appreciate what’s good about the food that they’ve finally been served, and as the man in the front of the house trying to keep a lid on things, “I can only pour so many drinks.” This frank little speech about customer psychology is the best thing in the episode. The second best thing comes right after, when Gordon asks Frank, if, hypothetically, he could be given the chance to select one member of his team, including himself, to join the others on the catwalk and be spared the ordeal of an elimination challenge, who would it be? Frank says that, as team leader, he would hypothetically have to take responsibility for his failure to make things run smoothly, and he would spare Josh. Then Gordon tells him that, as it happens, he is going to be given the chance to spare one member of the team, and that he has the option of choosing himself. Frank looks his comrades in the face and, heading toward the catwalk, says, “I gotta go up there, guys.” “[Bleep!],” says Josh.
The contest between Josh and David is to see who can do the best job of cooking three servings of filet mignon: one rare, one medium-rare, and one well-done, because you can never get tired of hearing Joe and Gordon do their little spiel about the “finger of pink” you want to see inside a perfect rare steak. Both cooks fumble their well-done steaks, while doing more or less all right with the others. After conferring with his colleagues, Gordon points out to Josh that he’s already been forced to leave the competition once before. “It’s time,” he says, “to leave here again,” then seems to wait an unconscionably long time before pointing to the catwalk and adding, “This time, you’re going up there!” Considering that, at that moment, I wanted to strangle Gordon Ramsay, I hate to think how Josh must have felt. Before surprising David with the news that Graham is eager to hire him for whichever of his two Chicago restaurants tickles his fancy, the judges indicate that they mostly shut down David’s journey because he was too generous with the garlic. Most people watching at home would be just as happy to have voted him off for saying that he was “sweating like a hog in heat.” Some of us are trying to eat.