How Top Chef’s finale tarnished its brand

Nearly eight years after its debut among a spate of dime-a-dozen Project Runway facsimiles, Top Chef has leapfrogged its reality competition forebear (which is now exiled to Lifetime) and minted itself as a successful luxury brand. The show has spawned Top Chef tie-in merchandise, including Quickfire wines, branded cookbooks, frozen dinners, and even a themed cruise. Top Chef has surpassed Project Runway in nearly every measure—including kudos, as it was the first show to disrupt The Amazing Race’s dominance in the Primetime Emmys’ Outstanding Reality-Competition Series category.

But last week’s controversial season finale could jeopardize Top Chef’s reign atop the reality food chain. In Top Chef: New Orleans, 19 contestants were whittled down to finalists Nicholas Elmi, a Philadelphia-based chef who cut his teeth on classic French cuisine, and Miami’s Nina Compton, who spent the season marrying her rustic Italian training and the flavors of her Caribbean heritage. Elmi and Compton both cooked admirably in their final services, leaving the quintet of judges conflicted and deadlocked. After tireless lobbying from head judge Tom Colicchio, Elmi was named Top Chef.

To be fair, Elmi cooked to his potential in the final service, while the usually flawless Compton’s improvised dessert was pleasant when it needed to be transcendent. But the judges were all smiles as they dined, especially during Compton’s service, which didn’t elicit much criticism beyond some dutiful quibbling. Meanwhile, Elmi got dinged for technical inconsistencies and the cardinal sin of under-seasoning, and had an audible, angry kitchen outburst. Despite what seemed like an evening that favored Compton, I was shocked, much like my colleague Sonia Saraiya, when Elmi was named the winner.

Others were in disbelief as well, leading Colicchio to defend the result on Twitter and go as far as to post a breakdown of the votes. If I were Colicchio, I too would think providing an accounting of the process would end the debate—the judges have always maintained contestants win or lose on a challenge-by-challenge basis, with no credit granted for cumulative excellence.

But this won’t be the rare occasion when an emotional response is subdued with numerical data. It’s fine that Compton wasn’t given an advantage based on being more consistent over the season; it’s not unforgiveable, in the face of a razor-thin margin, to tally the results in an arbitrary, zero-sum fashion—even though the obvious, more logical solution would have been to end the four-course deadlock by forcing the five judges to choose the better meal. The problem comes from the show’s editing, which suggests producers couldn’t resist Elmi’s “bad boy makes good” narrative and climbed over a fair outcome to get to it.

Elmi isn’t much of a villain early in the season. He’s the average Top Chef redshirt, hovering in the middle of the pack thanks to his competition’s egregious mistakes. But in episode 13, “Oui Si A Challenge,” Elmi steps in to fill the season’s villain vacuum. He concocted an unfortunate dish involving a nest made of fried cornsilk, over the objections of his teammates, and then sacrificed teammate Stephanie Cmar rather than forfeit his immunity to save her. Tellingly, that moment was included in Elmi’s intro montage at the finale’s beginning, turning the perfunctory fluffy highlight reel into a foundational reminder that Elmi is the bad guy as his coronation looms.

If the producers contrived this outcome, they may have done so thinking an Elmi win would actually reinforce the show’s integrity, rather than erode it. The Talented Jerk contestant is a reality-competition staple, and that character often wins over someone who appears more virtuous. It’s a result that can work if the Talented Jerk justifies his arrogance with his work product. When the Talented Jerk wins, especially when they go into the finale the underdog, if anything, it burnishes the show’s process—proving that judges don’t play favorites and only care about the work.

But the story model doesn’t succeed here, because Elmi can’t fill the Talented Jerk’s shoes. He wobbled through most of the competition, narrowly escaped elimination a few times, occasionally behaved like a dick, and sent someone else home for his crappy dish. In his final service, Elmi characteristically under-seasons, serves unchewable meat, and berates servers loud enough for diners to hear it. Still, Colicchio backs Elmi emphatically, and when his stumping is juxtaposed with the rest of Nick’s edit, it reads as though Colicchio decided Elmi should be Top Chef and overruled the other judges. It’s a result that lacks the basic ring of fairness, especially given the optics of a white male winning over two women of color (Compton and second runner-up Shirley Chung) who spent the season steamrolling him.

Reality-competition upsets don’t often make news these days—because we’re used to it. In fact, Top Chef debuted during one of the subgenre’s most notable slights: the fifth season of American Idol, in which Chris Daughtry and Katharine McPhee were beat out by the inscrutable Taylor Hicks. Top Chef matured as reality-competition viewers became inured to upsets, so its ability to elicit such a response in 2014 explains both the foundation of its success and shows why the finale doesn’t portend well for its future.

What sets Top Chef apart is how successfully it projects the illusion of a pure meritocracy. No reality-competition show is purely merit-based, of course. These are television shows first. The cameras aren’t there for the contest; the contest is there for the cameras. But Top Chef succeeds by casting contestants who seem like they were truly culled from the country’s best culinary talent, not those most talkative at an open call. The show has practically become a mandatory stop for James Beard Award bridesmaids and routinely stocks its guest-judge chairs with the world’s most renowned chefs. Even as it’s making contestants cook under the wackiest of circumstances, Top Chef manages to appear authoritative and fair.

That illusion of fairness is the lifeblood of any reality competition, and the shows that have survived the longest fight to maintain that facade. In Idol’s 12th season, its producers made no attempt to contain their giddiness over an all-female finale. That finale ended a five-year run of dreamy white male winners, which had spawned criticism that pubescent, pitch-agnostic tweens had become the show’s most powerful voting bloc. As it lost the illusion of fairness, the once-impregnable Idol was weakened prey for The Voice, which ate into Idol’s ratings and beat it to an Emmy win. The key was in The Voice’s “blind audition,” which, in addition to its novelty, projected fairness with a process in which talent can win out over narrative.

Mark Burnett, one of The Voice’s executive producers, provided an earlier case study in how reality competitions are doomed when they stop seeming fair. Both of Burnett’s most successful franchises, Survivor and The Apprentice, bolted out of the gate to become monster hits. But while Survivor was recently renewed through its 30th season, The Apprentice limped to seven seasons featuring regular contestants, and now only exists in its self-parody “celebrity” incarnation.

Why? Because Survivor is, by design, a self-ratifying competition, with myriad strategies and paths to victory, and a deciding jury of contestants who got burned. Any choice the jury makes is fair, regardless of how the audience feels about it. The Apprentice, meanwhile, dispensed early with its notion of fairness and rooted its success in Donald Trump’s irascibility. As fun as it was to watch the Trump eliminate a contestant for speaking out of turn or something equally random, it eventually stopped being a pure competition and became a game of musical executive chairs. It’s tough for a viewer to invest in a merit-based contest that prides itself on being arbitrary.

Top Chef risks a similar decline, because after 10 seasons—give or take—of rewarding a deserved chef, Top Chef is in the unfamiliar position of looking unfair. Elmi’s win over Compton tarnishes the Top Chef brand. But if that leads to the show’s decline, it won’t happen all at once. Some commenters have said they’ll never watch the show again, but if I had a dime for every time I’ve sworn off a show only to crawl back to it, I could buy every Top Chef contestant in history a shot of single malt. Even if there are defectors next season, they won’t prove Top Chef’s precarious path forward. That evidence will come from the gradual attrition of faithful viewers who continue watching the show as its perplexing outcomes defy their investment. Unless Top Chef can reclaim its sense of fairness next season, its audience may grow weary of the show’s bitter aftertaste.

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