Does Masterchef still have the magic?
Under pressure ... a Masterchef contestant attempts to impress the judges.
The fabulous New York magazine runs a great feature each week called The Approval Matrix. It’s a bit addictive really — the sort of graphic idea that many a smart magazine editor has thought about nicking (and indeed, may have nicked). Things, people, shows, ideas and so forth in the high- and low-culture firmament are plotted on the matrix according to four variables: highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, despicable.
So, for example, in the current edition’s matrix, in the most lowbrow-despicable position possible, the magazine’s tastemakers have placed that ghastly yellow-orange woman who allegedly put her six-year-old on a tanning bed. Too right. And in the highbrow-despicable corner, this hilarious note: “Nathan Myrhvold’s $450 Modernist Cuisine, about, like, how to cook using nuclear nitrotronics, has sold 45,000 copies. Forty-five thousand copies! Tell Congress we’ve found the people who can afford to pay more taxes.”
In the highbrow-brilliant corner? Oh, alright, you asked … it’s about gamelan fever (gamelan fever!) sweeping Manhattan. You can go and look up the lowbrow-brilliant corner, and the rest of their matrixed opinions yourself. Because I need to get to my point: yes, it’s early days, but I’ve been wondering where they’d place the new series of MasterChef. And how that placement might differ from where they might have placed it last year, and the year before …
A Masterchef contestant does his thing.
I’m inclined to think that poor old MasterChef, puffing in the ratings behind that show where people sing and that other one where people renovate, might this year find itself in the kind of nowhere-land of the Matrix’s middle territory. Certainly it’s not highbrow —the humourless haughty-haute food people I occasionally have the misfortune to come across would rather cook with a well-known brand of boxed stock than watch it. But it’s not lowbrow either (at least not when compared to the sideshow-alley-freak-show grotesquery that is Biggest Loser, which, in some strange bit of television-land decision making followed the cooking show on Tuesday night).
And on the despicable-to-brilliant scale? I think in its fresh first year MasterChef might well have been close to the brilliant edge of the matrix. Now? Closer to the ho-hum centre. What’s the saying? Familiarity breeds contempt? Is that MasterChef’s biggest problem? There are, after all, only so many times we can watch Matt Preston fingering his jacket lapel (“he’s even more irksome this time round,” says one friend), or George jiggling agitatedly like a kid who should be given a good dose of Ritalin (anyone else find Gary Mehigan’s persona a little endearing?). And only so many times we can listen to the clichés, the inanities, the endless recaps, the melodrama.
“I can’t do it anymore,” says one colleague, once a devoted watcher. “It’s too much commitment.” Says another: “They lost my goodwill.” For her, and I’d guess tens of thousands of others, it’s the “A” word. Advertising. From the start, back in 2009, it was irritating on multiple levels — the number of them, the timing of them, the judges in them, the product placement. By the end of the third series last year, it was infuriating. Only four episodes into the fourth series, and you’d have to think that Ten needs to be looking at the apoplexy (George, get a dictionary) it’s causing on couches around the country. What’s with the ad break then 30 seconds or so of show followed by another ad break? That’ll lose them goodwill faster than Matt Preston says “chop, chop!”.
And how’s this for breathtaking audacity: In previous years, we’ve seen packs of Campbell’s stock littered through the MasterChef kitchen, yet what happened this week? The foolish lad who decided to cook risotto was scolded not just for his choice of dish (historically, a MasterChef “disaster dish”) but also for daring to think about using a tub of unlabelled stock from the show’s pantry that he hadn’t cooked himself. “So your risotto will essentially taste of something you’ve not made,” chided Gary. So let me get this straight. It was OK for contestants to use stock they hadn’t made when that stock was produced by an advertiser filling up Ten’s coffers, but this year, when that advertiser clearly has deserted the ship, it’s a sackable offence? Oh puh-lease.
But the patient still shows signs of life. There’s ample evidence that this year’s series will give us a full and delicious set of characters to love and hate and analyse. Am I the only one to find the show more interesting as a human study than as a food show?
Asian curry woman. Sullen-Steve-Buscemi-lookalike (as he was dubbed by the Twittersphere). Up-himself hairdresser. Annoying polka-dot girl. Sweet hijab wearer.
And the fact is, the show still has the power to hit the high notes. Go online, go look at chocolate-ganache-raspberry woman be admitted to the top 24 in episode three and tell me I’m not right. But the question is, will there be enough of those high notes to move MasterChef a little closer to “brilliant”, a little further away from “despicable”, on my, your, approval matrix? Can it find its way out of nowhere land?
Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @StephanieAWood1