Review 7: MasterChef Season 5 – Episode 1

I used to love MasterChef.  I loved sitting down in front of the idiot box at 7:30pm on a nightly basis, watching people trying to put together restaurant quality meals for three portly men.  I loved the joy on their faces when they succeeded, almost as much as I loved the tears when they failed miserably. It was comforting TV.

But it quickly became boring TV, routine TV, repetitive TV.  Subsequent seasons stuck to the same formula.  You could almost rattle off contestant monologues before they happened (“I really don’t think I can get this done in time!”).  You could call the episodes before they happened: (“I bet they travel in this one!”).  The judges said the same shit every time, and you could predict the infuriatingly timed ad breaks to the nanosecond. Even spin offs like Celebrity, Junior, and The Professionals did little to mix things up , with dropping viewer numbers a clear indicator that my feelings were shared by viewers across the nation.

So Season 5 has arrived, with its battle of the sexes angle.  The advertising campaign was tiresome, but maybe it was actually a disguise.  Maybe Ten were deliberately setting the bar low so I could be blown away by awesomeness.

First impressions weren’t good, but they weren’t crap either.  It was all just a bit… expected.  22 contestants, 11 male, 11 female, split into teams based on gender and given the task of putting together a three-course menu for 14 on a tight budget.  This was MasterChef by the numbers.

After being put to the kitchen knife in the ratings by 7’s My Kitchen Rules, I thought Ten would open with a gun celebrity chef presenting a borderline impossible challenge.  Put together a dish that’s raw.  Make an Asian dish without any kitchen utensils.  Turn this chicken into a foam.  I don’t know, something different, something outrageous, something that’ll turn heads and cause people eagerly anticipating another “just waiting for a mate” moment on Highway Patrol to change channels.

A challenge that limits contestants by budget hasn’t just been done before in every season.  It discourages exotic ingredients and dishes with multiple complex elements, instead forcing contestants to come up with things that are a bit mundane.  Chicken pie?  Lemon tart?  Sure, executed well the simple things are beautiful for the tastebuds.  But this is television; I can’t taste, smell or feel, so I have to find interest elsewhere.  The basics can’t really excite on the small screen, at least not to the extent something revolutionary could.  The challenge is a missed opportunity for a season opener, that’s for sure.

While I understand that getting the contestants’ thoughts on the on-screen action is essential, it’d be nice if they were more insightful.  For the most part contestants are describing word for word, almost frame by frame, what’s taking place, much like an Arnold Schwarzenegger DVD commentary (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjvSGSPAcPs).  “Look at what is happening.  And just in case you, the idiot viewer, can’t understand what is happening, let me describe it to you at length”.  You could easily edit out this filler and halve the show runtime.

Emphasising the superfluous nature of the above is the lack of focus on the actual food; the finished dishes.  Now correct me if I’m wrong, but the contestants’ survival on the show depends entirely on the end product they give to the judges.  So why, when it comes to tasting time, are we shown a handful of shots of the food and some token comments before it’s all over?  This is where time should be spent.  Instead of showing someone whisking sour cream, then showing someone talking about how they were whisking sour cream, commit those five minutes to letting the viewer know how the bloody thing presents, feels and tastes.

Giving more time to finished dishes would also lead to greater input from judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston, a trio who I’ve actually come to appreciate more as seasons have passed, but away from MasterChef.  I’ve seen them in interviews, Can of Worms, columns in magazines and the like.  These are three unique, respectable individuals who are definitely experts in the field of food.  They can crack a pretty good gag too; they’re funny guys.  If you give them more time on-screen they’re inevitably going to show this personality, rather than rattle off the same lines they always have.  They’re serviceable though, and nothing they say seems forced; these are obviously blokes who can genuinely tell a brûlée from a brisket, are happy to give credit where it’s due and don’t hold back if something tastes like old bath water.  My sources tell me Calombaris has dropped 20 kilos too, so there’s that.  Speaking of judges, if this is a battle of the sexes season, why do I only see male judges?  Pretty glaring omission if you ask me.

The battle of the sexes angle adds a little bit of friendly banter between the two teams.  It’s actually pretty entertaining, but this is only episode one.  I feel like the boys and girls are going to have to come up with some absolute pearlers if they’re going to keep things fresh over a whole season.

It’s hard to get an early read on how the contestants will be, but the spotlight seemed to be on Jules and Nicky of the girls and boys respectively, who captained their teams in the main challenge.  Jules is a headstrong “take no shit from nobody” kind of gal, which is a breath of fresh air after the crybabies of past seasons.  Nicky is a bit of a weirdo, with a military background, and while he seemed to be quite good at delegating, he was shit at actually doing any cooking, which seems crucial.  But at least he wasn’t a cardboard cutout.

Overall, I think this season of MasterChef has potential.  The battle of the sexes angle could add intrigue and conflict.  Limited glimpses of contestants show promise that there’ll be some real characters among the 22.  The judges are going through the motions but are nonetheless decent, despite the fact that there’s NO FEMALE AUTHORITY IN A BATTLE OF THE SEXES-THEMED SEASON!  There are plenty of ways it could fail and instead become another irritating exercise in repetition.  If the banter’s going to continue, there are going to have to be some absolute ripper calls in there, or it’s all going to get real annoying, real fast.  The challenges need to up the ante too, because episode one’s was simply underwhelming.  And can you show us more food please?  That would help.

I give it a six-course degustation out of ten.

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