The three Musketeers of MasterChef, Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastionich, and Graham Elliot, begin their fourth season looking surprising eager and full of pepper. Nobody would blame them if they were a little out of breath, considering how much time they must have recently spent doubled over laughing at The Taste, ABC’s misguided attempt to get into the celebrity-judge-driven cooking-competition game. Generally speaking, there aren’t many people playing themselves on TV who I’d rather watch than The Taste's chief judge, Anthony Bourdain, and the first season of his new CNN series—which, admittedly, is just his old Travel Channel series with a different network logo in a corner of the screen—shows that if you dispatch him to any city in the world with a camera crew and a research team, he can still be depended on to return with good TV. I don’t know I want to say that what the MasterChef hosts do is harder, but it’s certainly different, and it demands a different kind of showmanship.
After the usual heavy breathing from the voiceover announcer about the momentous nature of what Gordon Ramsay modestly calls “the biggest cooking competition in the world today,” the three hosts step into the room where the contestants who have been selected to vie for a place on the show are gathered, and address the rabid, cheering throng. After Gordon reminds them they are not here to make mud pies and listen to Aunt June tell them its Mmm-mm good while slipping her mouthful into her napkin, Joe cautions them that the eventual winner will henceforth labor under the yoke of “fame, notoriety,” and—opening the briefcase that, I’m sorry to say, is not handcuffed to his wrist—a butt-load of cash.
He flashes the stacks of Benjamins inside the case, and the crowd roars their assurance that they’re prepared to take all this on if he can stand to give it to them. “But if you’re here, just for the cash, leave now!” bellows Joe, and to show that he’s not playing around, he tosses a wad of bills into a sink, douses it with oil, and lights it on fire. Then Graham, speaking fast in case one of the contestants turns out to be an off-duty federal officer who will have to arrest Joe for wanton destruction of U. S. currency, produces a wooden box and tells them what it contains may be the key to “your culinary legacy!” He opens the box and pulls out a MasterChef apron, and the crowd cheers even louder, while the awesome power that has been unleashed spontaneously melts the face off every Nazi in the vicinity of Burbank.
The audition episodes have always been the bane of MasterChef, which, given the nature of cooking on TV, is unlikely to produce a YouTube star of the stature of William Hung or the “pants on the ground” guy. Trains wrecks are funnier to listen to than to see some other guy taste, though the editors have done their best to spice things up tonight with a montage of Gordon retching various unsuccessful dishes into whatever receptacle is handy. (In one clip, Ramsay does his Mr. Creosote impression into the sink while the person in the dock, a woman in a red dress whose cooking skills may be suspect but who has attitude to burn, sniffs “I mean, I ate it, that’s fine.”) But now that the hosts have been doing this for a while, the auditions are becoming more interesting to watch as they become more aware of the formula, and how things come across on air.
At times, you can sense the hosts are feeling contestants out, weighing their genuine promise as cooks versus their TV appeal and whether or not they might crack under pressure. The ghost of Brandon Hantz hovers uncomfortably over all reality shows now, and nobody wants to be the swing vote who says okay to some colorful character who winds up going nuts and trying to re-enact the hot-coffee scene from The Big Heat with a snarky rival who reminds him of his ex-wife. In previous seasons, the judges have sounded like the coach in a “Go for it!” college-sports movie, demanding contestants prove to them they’ll go all the way and pull out that little bit extra when the chips are down, because they have the heart of a lion and an unconquerable can-do spirit.
This time, the judges seem less interested in that shit than in whether the contestants they’re on the fence about are emotionally stable. Making the case against a motor-mouthed Puerto Rican father of three, the dependably saturnine Joe, whose job on this show is to make Gordon Ramsay look like an Ewok, prods the man into making a big, telegenic show of how passionately he loves his family, then says, “This guy doesn’t have what it takes. He cries every five minutes.” Gordon, who has a special talent for giving people good news in ways that seem more sadistic than Joe’s way of telling them they’re a waste of egg and sperm, leans forward and whispers, “You’re. Not. Going. To see your three girls for several weeks,” and throws him an apron.
He’s not the only lucky one. A vivacious woman in bright red eff-me shoes cooks empanadas while answering Gordon’s question about her “food dream”: It involves having her own place, that “people can go to and feel like they’re walking into their home, very casual, very fun, and also, in the evening, turn it into kind of a cooking class.” Gordon interrupts her: “Can you turn off the gas, please, before we all blow up?” She is invited on board, and promises to focus in the future. Another montage of frisky, flirty contestants establishes the judges are sex symbols, while the comments inspired by a contestant who has whipped them up a plate of beaver establishes that even the most expensively dressed among them remains a 12-year-old boy at heart. One guy, making small talk as he cooks, mentions his girlfriend is waiting outside and he’s been carrying around an engagement ring in his pocket for six months. After the judges have tasted his dish, Ramsay orders him to call the girlfriend in and then, after telling him his food sucks, orders him to man up and propose already. I’d hate to think it was his hope that his romantic story would soften the judges’ hearts so they’d let him on the show while the ring stayed in his pocket a while longer, but what does it say about me that such an unworthy thought could even take shape in my evil mind?
The prototypical MasterChef contestant tonight may be the gentle, soft-spoken Rudy, whose face and body are scarred from the fires that ravaged the San Diego area in 2003 when he was trapped after using his own escape time to warn his neighbors. “Your story is compelling, and certainly moving,” says Joe. “I wish your food was, as well.” He’s out, and to judge from the other comments, it sounds as if nobody is crazy about his food but that Graham would be happy to let him sneak by anyway. Happily, Rudy seems like a guy with a healthy perspective: Acknowledging the crowd’s applause, he tells the camera, “I didn’t get through, but if you look, I made friends.” The audition episodes of MasterChef give you a chance to see how the sausage is made. But they’re also the sausage.