On some level, I admire Top Chef for gutting its time-tested finale format. So much of this season was about reinstating order after some serious missteps in the past few seasons, and much of that order came from calming down, airing out, and returning to previously successful challenge formats. With a few exceptions, season 10 has had a sort of civility about it, one that in the past had separated Top Chef from other competition-based reality shows. A final challenge that required Brooke and Kristen to deliver three courses for a table of judges and renowned chefs would have been completely satisfactory and completely expected. It's what the show's been doing, more or less, for 10 seasons. The traditional format taps into what's most important to the chefs at that moment—by asking them to reflect on their personal histories, they pull out the drive that has brought them to the finale. It affords them focus not only on the dishes they intend to serve, but on the journey that's brought them this close to the title. I can't fault the franchise for wanting to step outside the show's format and experiment—10 seasons deep is as fine a time as any to reevaluate and ask how to make the show sustainable.
I'm not even opposed to the finale being that place of departure. With only two chefs left, and with one of them having recently returned from elimination thanks to Last Chance Kitchen, why not pit them against each other in some novel way? But tonight's finale was such a radical switch from the typical format of Top Chef that I was completely disoriented within the first few minutes. I actually went back to my DVR to make sure I hadn't missed something last week, and went online to see if I'd missed some online component that explained how we got here. When did the chefs plan these menus? How did they choose their sous-chefs? They're already cooking?
It's hard to look at this in a vacuum—I've been trained to have those questions by previous seasons of the show. During those finales, some significant drama has come from how and when those sous chefs appear. We've watched them plan and discuss their menus, which typically lends context to the rest of the episode as we see their vision, complete, and how well they're able to execute that vision.
Here, with sweeping game-show bravado and a live studio audience, we're plucked out of the intimate dinner setting and into a television studio, where the audience chants along with the countdown and wildly applauds as the chefs plate their final dishes. It's not only inconsistent with past finales—it's inconsistent with the atmosphere of the show as a whole. Even this, though, I was willing to buy into. Top Chef had earned a fair amount of goodwill over the course of this season, and the two final chefs are so likable that I came to the finale not incredibly invested in the outcome. Brooke and Kristen had both performed so well that I'd have been happy with either of them winning; I was just expecting to sit back and watch them cook. Maybe one of them would trip up and under- or over-season or cook. Maybe it would be so close that the judges would fight, calling on the chefs' work over the entire season to help inform their choice.
And while it made sense to me to try to shake my expectations for this finale based on previous seasons, it makes no sense to look at this episode outside the seasonal arc. Finales should be suspenseful. That's the whole point. Tension's been building all season toward this endpoint, and tonight's episode squandered every bit of it.
Brooke and Kristen, at some point prior to filming, plan their menus and assemble their team of sous chefs. Brooke is working with Kuniko, C.J., and Stefan, while Kristen has Josh, Sheldon, and Lizzie. Why on earth the producers decided to go with reunion-show-style, the-road-to-the-finale montages, and footage on the previous-winners-greatest-hits is a total mystery to me. If they had the time, it might have been better to fill in some of the holes that they tried to fix with Padma's quick voiceover during the first few minutes. I fully expected the first flashback to be the chefs getting their assignments and thinking through menus. Not so.
They'd be cooking five courses, maybe, with the second course including scallops and the fourth including red snapper. The first one to three winning dishes wins the title. It's this concept that ends up ruining the finale. While the format might provide occasional suspense along the way as Kristen and Brooke tally wins and losses and the competition threatens to tip one way or the other, it completely ignores the fact that for those of us not attending the live event—meaning everyone watching this pre-recorded TV show at its normal time on Bravo—the show has an end time one hour after it begins. It's not a live show just because it has a live audience, dear producers. When we at home watch the edited version, we see it's only one hour. And if the judging of the fourth course rolls around at minute 50, it's highly unlikely that there's a fifth course. To know who won Top Chef, you only had to look at a clock.
The lack of debate also deflated the episode significantly. Judging the chefs on the spot, like a quickfire challenge, and getting rid of any deliberations removes meaning from the judges' decisions. Tonight's episode abandons careful deliberation in favor of play-by-play commentary. In round one, they have no idea how their vote may or may not effect the outcome. They don't have the opportunity to judge the chefs' performance as a whole, or their vision of how the dishes play off one another. Tonight, Tom more or less single-handedly got to decide who would win, and was well aware of that decision at that moment. (And since he has been so smitten with Kristen, there wasn't much of a mystery there, either.) The judges' deliberations are typically what teases out the suspense during the finale. Through careful editing, we get to guess the judges' decisions as they weigh the highlights against any failures of execution. The new format ended up undercutting not only the arc of this season, but shortchanged the two best chefs.
That's what's such a bummer—that Top Chef had gotten it right thus far. Kristen and Brooke had performed consistently and well, and I'm left wondering what could have been: how they could have performed plating for 10 instead of 300, cooking throughout the night without the play-by-play feedback, allowed to tell a story with their food.
- Kristen swayed me when she pointed out everything going on on Brooke's second plate. It did seem that she had too many components, though everyone else counters that those layers are so essential to what they do. I wish there'd been a little more time given to exploring how those played off each other.
- Brooke's boy is adorable. I love that he slept during Gail's visit to the table.
- I haven't seen a ton of Iron Chef, but the producers had to know what they were borrowing, right?
- Brooke's slow crash was sad to watch, especially since she knew it was happening. But those chicken wings looked badass.
- That cut to Josie's face gleefully shouting the countdown sent me into an instant rage. And Hosea! Two faces I'd rather not see again.