When Hell's Kitchen debuted in May of 2005, it introduced two concepts that American TV viewers ate up: a cooking competition with real stakes, and a host/coach/judge with a propensity for foul-mouthed abuse. Pitched as the ultimate in reality TV degradation–"Come watch this crazy foreigner scream and throw food at dumpy amateur chefs!"–Hell's Kitchen gradually revealed itself as the continuing story of a hot-headed perfectionist who really just wanted all the cocky would-be celebs on his watch to live up to their potential. As the first season wore on, it became less of a guilty pleasure and more of a heart-warmer, with some useful tips on how an aspiring chef can get his or her shit together. (And if there's one reason I watch reality TV, it's to see people who don't have their shit together get told off by professionals.)

But before the second season of Hell's Kitchen started, a few things happened. One of those things was Top Chef. Seeing worthy cheftestants, creative challenges, and more transparency (via blogs, press opportunities and the like) made HK's contrivances all the harder to take. It also didn't help that Ramsay's popularity in the U.S. led to more magazine profiles and airings on BBC America of his pre-HK series, which made his cartoonish, one-dimensional rage on American TV come off kind of insulting. Clearly, Ramsay is a respected chef with strong ideas about running a business and serving customers; why does he–or Fox–insist on keeping that side from us?

Up until this past couple of weeks, Season Four of Hell's Kitchen has been the worst one yet. Usually, there are a small handful of contestants each season who show enough potential that I can almost believe that the persnickety Ramsay would let them work in one of his restaurants. But this season has been a joke: Unlikable, incompetent, arrogant contestants, showing little in the way of initiative or imagination. I know Fox likes screw-ups and conflict, because that allows them to cut together more enticing commercials, but I prefer to have my Screaming Ramsay and "You could've killed somebody, you donkey"-level fuck-ups to be sprinkled lightly throughout an episode, like salt. This season has been heavily salinized.

And yet, coming into the two-part finale, Hell's Kitchen managed to pull out of its nosedive, and emerge–almost improbably–with two reasonably talented and semi-ingratiating contestants. And tonight's final dinner service, with the young-but-driven Christina up against the old-but-wily Petrozza, was maybe the strongest I've seen in the history of the show.

Not that the producers didn't do all they could to throw a few spanners in the works (to use a phrase Ramsay would probably be comfortable with). Saddled with an array of ousted contestants as their "brigades," Christina and Petrozza have to find ways to whip the incorribles–Jen and Matt–into shape. Straight away, Jen is boasting that nobody wants her on their team because she's "too strong a leader" and will "outshine" them, while Matt blurts out that he wasn't planning on calling Christina "chef," but since she's going to add his risotto to the menu, he acquiesces. Then, during prep, Jen corrals Chef Ramsay in order to ask for a letter of recommendation, while Matt cracks jokes and does goofy accents and just generally behaves like a psychotic doofus. Then, during service, Jen can't get her garnishes cooked right, and Matt can't figure out how to cook monkfish long enough so that it won't be raw in the middle. ("How did it get raw?" he asks quizzically, apparently misunderstanding that cooked food rarely reverts back to its uncooked state.)

Of course I'm sure all of this is blown out of proportion in the editing bay. Had the producers wanted, they could've made the Owen Wilson-y Ben into a bad guy, or the diminutive, faux-hawked Louross. That said, I caught a few glimpses of authenticity in the ways the finalists handled their various crises, and especially in the way Petrozza ran the pass with aplomb, showing keen quality control and improvisation skills (the latter when he ran out of portions on two of his appetizers…a mistake caused by his lack of preparation).

I was pulling for Petrozza, who stayed sweet-hearted and enthusiastic throughout the whole season, even after bombing in the first episode with his signature dish, "Hen In A Pumpkin." But it was pretty obvious that Christina would win. She's young, she has more relevant experience in contemporary cuisine, and her spirit won't be completely crushed when she's inevitably terminated at the end of one year "running" Ramsay's new L.A. restaurant. (They may as well just say that the prize for winning this show is $250,000 and nothing else. I don't think any winner yet has actually served as "executive chef" in quite the way the show implies. Last week, for example, we met the man who's going to be Christina's boss in L.A., which doesn't make it sound like she's going to be in charge of much.)

So…will I watch again next year? Maybe the first episode at least. I've read that Ramsay is unhappy with the dopey contestants Fox keeps throwing at him, so maybe he'll assert himself and demand some Top Chef-level talent in the kitchen. And maybe Fox could alter the formula some, so that it's not the same beats year after year. (Even this finale trotted out the old "Will the construction crews finish the new restaurants in time?" gambit that comes around every season.)

Mostly, I would hope for a little more forthrightness about who these people on my TV screen are (diners included), and what they do with their lives when the show is over. Are any of them ever interviewed by their hometown newspapers? Do they go back to cooking and lead normal lives? Or are they herded back into their pens beneath the Fox lot, where they hope to be picked for Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? or The Moment Of Truth?

That whole operation over there is just so creepy.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-Petrozza claims he made some good friends during his Hell's Kitchen experience, which may explain why he lost. He had the wrong attitude for a reality TV competition: