America has a bottomless appetite for two things: reality cooking shows and reality talent shows. Overseas, a show called MasterChef has become a massive, massive hit, and seeing it, American TV producers must have thought, "Hey, this bears a passing resemblance to American Idol crossed with Top Chef." The idea must have made them salivate. Naturally, since the show ended up on Fox, that meant that Gordon Ramsey would have to get involved, and naturally, since Ramsey is a loud, belligerent asshole, that meant that this first episode—an auditions episode, more or less, would focus on him doing all kinds of asshole-ish things. There's nothing wrong with this, but the premiere of MasterChef falls into such a predictable rhythm early on that it becomes way, way too easy to just tune it out.
The best thing about MasterChef is that it focuses on something that Ramsey's other summer series—Hell's Kitchen—doesn't seem terribly concerned about: presentation. Sure, there's lip service paid to presentation on that other show, but this series features long segments when the show's three judges will rant about how a particular dish does not look so great on the plate, and then the camera will do an overhead shot where you can see that, indeed, that giant bowl of funeral potatoes is just RUNNING with grease, or that plate of Cajun cooking looks kind of gross, no matter how good it tastes. Some of the chefs with bad presentation get to go on, but some of them are sunk by this particular detail, and the show makes crafty use of the visual nature of TV to play up these moments. At the same time, there's not a great deal of time spent on figuring out a way to present taste visually. A good dish seems to provoke a response indistinguishable from a bad one when the chefs taste it, and the shot used to show the judges tasting the dishes—an extreme close-up—doesn't really vary from dish to dish.
The reason MasterChef has been such a big hit worldwide is the fact that it contains an educational element, a value-add, if you will. The premise of the show is that the judges, led by Ramsey in this edition, are going to take time to teach the people they select for the final competition how to be better chefs. All of the people chosen are good amateur cooks, but the one that wins the whole thing (and the $250,000 plus cookbook deal that is the show's big prize) will be the only one that is able to truly incorporate the lessons the judges teach him or her (and, by proxy, us) into their cooking, the only one that makes the step up to becoming, well, a master chef. I kept waiting for something like this to pop up in the premiere, but it didn't really until the very end, when a chef hoping to advance with a macaroni and cheese dish was stymied by forgetting to add seasoning to it, then got this valuable lesson from the judges: Salt makes things taste better.
Now, look. I fancy myself an amateur cook of some skill. I don't think I could compete or even advance on a show like this (I get too tied to my recipes), but ideally, a show like this would be a good way for me to add a few new moves to my repertoire. When those moves boil down to really, really basic things like, "Salt is salty!" though, it suggests that what the show is going to focus on are the old American reality TV bits and pieces of gruff mentors with a heart of gold, contestants with big sob stories, and a competition that will leave one competitor behind every week. Obviously, the foreign versions of MasterChef have these elements as well, but they also seem more dedicated toward instruction in how to prepare good looking and good tasting dishes (at least in the YouTube clips I've scanned). This is the thing that sets the show apart from other competition reality shows, and it's been minimized in the American version. If you can't sing, there's no way something Randy Jackson says will suddenly make you capable of doing so. But anyone can take a cooking lesson or two from the show and apply it in their own kitchens.
One of the best things about American cooking is that we're a big country, and, thus, we have any number of regional cuisines. A very basic dish like the hamburger becomes a completely different thing in the hands of a chef from Santa Fe, N.M., or one from Minneapolis. Similarly, pizzas from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles provoke bitter feuds about which is best (Chicago, of course). MasterChef tries to make something of these regional differences—with such region-specific dishes as beer cheese soup turning up—but it doesn't really bother explaining them beyond the names and a quick gloss over the ingredients. The show could be about the many different foods the U.S. is capable of coming into conflict with each other, often suggesting to viewers new things they might want to try on vacation or something. Instead, these elements get the most basic treatment possible.
And why is that? It's because this is an audition episode. And just like the American Idol audition episodes, it needs to find good chefs with heartwarming stories and bad chefs to make fun of. But there's a big difference between the cute soccer-playing girl who makes fish tacos so bad that Ramsey spits them back up into a bowl rather than swallow them and William Hung. All of us at home can see how badly William Hung sings, and while American Idol is cruel about it, it also lets us in on the fact that the guy is deluded. It's a lot harder for us to get into Ramsey's head when he tastes those tacos because we can't taste them either. They certainly LOOK pretty good. All we have to base our feelings on are how Ramsey and the other judges treat the dish.
And that's the biggest problem with MasterChef in a nutshell. It's not a particularly bad show, but it's too timid to stray from the basic template of a show like this. It's blindingly obvious how just about every audition that goes before the cameras is going to end up. The father who's putting it all on the line (and how, exactly?) with his technically proficient but underseasoned macaroni and cheese will get a lecture from Ramsey, but the second he brings out the guy's wife and kids to talk about how this is daddy's dream, you know the guy will get a reprieve. (It also doesn't hurt that this is the last audition, and every audition show must end on an up note.) The guy who comes out with a big bowl of mashed potatoes combined with cheese and sour cream and other crazy stuff that looks—as Ramsey accurately points out—like cow shit isn't going to go terribly far. And so on and so forth. There's all the potential for MasterChef to be one of the very best reality shows out there, but it doesn't seem terribly likely that the show will rise up and seize that potential. It's far, far easier to just walk where others have already been.