I’m glad that MasterChef is back, but if I weren’t watching it as a trained professional, I’d probably skip the audition process, which eats up the first week of every season and will be spreading, like kudzu, into the third episode. Maybe these hours are thought to perform a really valuable service by giving viewers a chance to get to know the colorful personalities we’ll be seeing more of once the competition gets under way, even though the first thing that will happen once the competition does get under way is that half the survivors of this screening process will be culled. It’s also just as likely that the judges, having met all these crazies and sampled their shit, want something to show for it: Look, here are the people daddy had to talk to today, and keep that in mind the next time you hear mommy say that I don’t really work for a living. Fine, whatever; the audition episodes still look, to me anyway, like clips shows for a season that hasn’t begun yet. Even the show Conan O’Brien produced starring Chris Monsanto didn’t have its clip show until three episodes in.
There are good-sized chunks of time spent on especially intriguing contestants who’ll be moving on to take part in the show proper, such as Monti Carlo, a divorced, unemployed stay-at-home mom (of a two-year-old named Danger) who says that she lives “on a budget,” and who says in the next breath that she has $50 in her bank account, which kind of pushes the accepted definition of being on a budget, and whose chatterbox personality is finally deemed charming by the judges, despite Joe’s allegation that she’s feeding them “shtick.” On the other hand, there are also full visits with people who don’t make it on. That’s fine in the case of some assholes, but when the show lavishes time on someone more likable, such as Shami, a warm-hearted woman who serves a Zimbabwean dish, and an 18-year-old Catholic schoolgirl named Samantha, and they get voted down, it’s possible to feel irritated at the way that people who seem nice enough are being exploited, in the wake of a disappointing experience, just to create a little competition-show drama and human interest, before the competition has even begun.
Irritation is heightened by the cliffhanger announcement bullshit that’s being carried over from the previous season, though I don’t know a fan of the show who doesn’t gnash some of the enamel off his teeth over it. After making Samantha jump through hoops—the judges even tell her to fetch her parents from the waiting area, so that her father can testify to her worthiness—Gordon Ramsay says, “I would like you to…” There’s a commercial, and when it’s over, the scene has to be laboriously reset before anyone gets to hear Ramsay complete his sentence with the words, “…come back next year.” This sort of thing is marginally easier to take when the news is good, but only theoretically. After allowing Marti to practically crawl on her belly while groveling to be let in, Ramsay gets as far as saying, “I’m sorry, but you will not…” before it’s commercial time again. Will not what, will not what!? “Be seeing your son for a while, because I’m giving you an apron!” Whew, thanks. Would it tempt you to reconsider if I kicked you in the nuts now?
Although some of the personalities on display are sui generis, others have come to Los Angeles to testify to the American mania for transforming oneself into a cultural stereotype. There’s a montage combining the auditions by a whole gang of mook muscleheads, and another devoted to a passel of cowpokes. One guy who’s judged too good to be tucked inside the montage literally rides his horse onto the set, with his stuff packed in his saddlebags. (Graham, seeing the horse, says, “I’m praying that he’s not cooking that thing.” Not to be outdone, the horse pees on the floor.) There’s also a bald shitkicker with a Scott Ian beard whose mother, no doubt in anticipation of his TV debut, named him “Bubba.”
Once the actual competition starts, this show might be fun again, but for the moment, it’s awkwardly divided between blackout gaga at the expense of the crazy losers and warm, fuzzy profiles of some of the winners. Right now, the star of the season is a blind cook—the first ever in the history of MasterChef, we’re told, with that weird tendency this show has to try to make it sound as if it has a century of tradition behind it, when in fact it’s been around for all of three years. A good sob story doesn’t hurt. The cowboy with the horse makes the cut and rewards the judges with a heart-tugging account of how he’s doing this in memory of his sister, who recently died in a car accident. Tonight’s episode ends with another man, a soldier in military fatigues, who doesn’t wait until he’s been told to leave or invited to stick around before breaking down crying. He says that he wants to win the competition so that he can start a restaurant and name it as a tribute to the son who drowned five years ago; shaking, his face melting, he talks about how he’s faced death so many times in the service of his country, while his boy died senselessly, and he himself must have lived through it all for some reason, and maybe this is it. Gordon waits a few minutes for the soldier to compose himself, then asks Joe for his vote. But no pressure!
- Loser supplicant to Joe: “I’m willing to take the criticism.” Joe: “It’s coming."