MasterChef Junior differs from the glut of competitive cooking shows on television—and from most reality TV overall—by fully embracing joy and documenting the genuine enthusiasm of youth. Reality TV is an unnatural state to exist in: Competitors are generally far from their families, placed in an unfamiliar environment and forced to compete with strangers for recognition and a singular title. And yet, most emotion exhibited by these competitors seems canned or strained. The typical series is built around a scenario that induces as much stress and anxiety as possible, funneling most, if not all, emotion into anger and resentment. By focusing on children, MasterChef Junior allows reality television to breathe again.
There are plenty of tears in the first two episodes of the show’s second season, and yet it’s still less than expected. When a contestant gets teary, a judge is there to reassure them, if not other contestants. They dissolve into gales of laughter when something tickles their fancy or the judges do something silly; more than once an older child helps a younger child maneuver some of the heavier kitchen equipment. This is still a competition, but the tiny chefs realize that they are among kindred spirits. They want to win, but they want to do so without hurting anyone’s feelings.
On the whole, this is a far cry from most reality TV focusing on talented children. With non-competition shows like Dance Moms or Toddlers And Tiaras, the time spent with the kids feels like prying into the closets of already over-exposed youth, who are forced to perform not only on the stage but in their homes as well. That’s the advantage of only seeing the contestants of MasterChef Junior in the kitchen, where all their passion lies. They are protected in this way, still free to return to their homes and resume the childhoods they deserve, which goes a long way toward allaying any audience guilt about a night’s entertainment of watching children slave over a hot stove.
Beyond anything else, the main reason to tune into MasterChef Junior is to watch talented people do amazing things, regardless of age. It’s inspiring to watch beautiful food prepared, and when it’s done by a 9-year-old who calls the show “the first big adventure” of her childhood, it’s a little bit emotional, too. The same goes for the little girl who’s been cooking “since she was 2” and earnestly reports what she’d do with the $100,000 top prize: Give most of it to charity (and also buy a pony).
Regardless of the audience’s personal feelings about children, there’s something to be said about how un-jaded the contestants of MasterChef Junior are. To them, everything is still magical and unreal. Within the first moments of the show, a few of them ask if the judges are pictures or statues, so out of the ordinary is their presence. Later, one child wonders if a guest judge is a hologram. Nothing is impossible in their eyes, and that shows in every dish they cook—even the failures. These children make brilliant dishes because they don’t know yet that they’re supposed to be scared or ferocious or cutthroat. They just want to do their best and try their hardest and have a good time.
And maybe buy that pony.
Starring: Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot
Debuts: Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Fox
Format: Hour-long reality competition
Two episodes watched for review