After two and a half episode’s worth of “auditions,” half an episode devoted to narrowing the number of contestants who survived the auditions down to 18, and the completion of the dishes for the first Mystery Box challenge, MasterChef officially began at 8:23 P.M. tonight. As all reality-competition junkies know, the President of the Galactic Federation can beam down and break a bottle of champagne over Gordon Ramsay’s head to inaugurate the new season, but it won’t be a party until the first time someone uses a variant on the phrase “threw so-and-so under the bus.” That’s what big Dave says, with great disgust, when one contestant, Ryan, actually interrupts Gordon Ramsay to insist that his bad dish isn’t as bad as his rival’s bad dish. A short time before, the contestants had flipped open their Mystery Boxes, which look as if they ought to contain dust-covered copies of the Necronomicon, to instead find “the most amazing duck breasts”, kale, fresh bananas, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, and “some maple syrup.”
Told to do their best with these ingredients, the chefs go straight to work. The judges make no attempt to hide their immediate impression that some of them are cooking and conceptualizing as if they’re high. Learning that Samantha is working on a dish combining the sweet potato and rhubarb with the duck, Gordon asks her if she has any idea what this mad union would taste like. She doesn’t, but figures she must be going down the right path, since “I know what they taste like individually.” “Don’t we all,” replies Gordon, practically rolling his eyes. Whispering among themselves, the judges make it clear that anyone who puts the bananas they’ve been given to use should not be allowed to vote or procreate. So why are the bananas even there? As the cocky-ass douchebag Ryan finds out the hard way, it’s so that Gordon can taste someone’s dish and exclaim, “You’ve gone bananas!” He says it twice, as if that could somehow make up for the fact that it’s the most rehearsed-looking “ad lib” since the days when Paul Lynde occupied the center square.
Before proceeding to the main competition of the evening, the judges force the perpetrators of the three worst dishes—Ryan, Samantha, and semi-professional Steve Buscemi impersonator Scott, whose duck profiterole looks like Muppet scat—to stand before their betters and explain themselves, before one of them is sent packing. Always a tease, Gordon allows the three big losers to assume that he’s calling them up because they’d made the three best dishes, until they’d had the chance to deepen their humiliation by strutting and beaming a little. Scott, who readily confesses to having gotten overly ambitious and then compounded his mistake by “getting scared” of his own dish, establishes himself as one of the likable contestants by virtue of the fact that he’s the only one of the three who has no illusions about the quality of his work; even before Gordon makes it clear what’s going on, his body language has “dead man walking” written all over it. Ryan, on the other hand, vigorously hand-stamps his own d-bag credentials by interrupting Gordon to insist that Samantha’s dish was worse than his: “Even though my dish may have been the uglier in presentation,” he babbles, “it was edible.” The fact that Gordon listens to this and sends Samantha home anyway, instead of Ryan, boggles the mind. She must have really put some nightmare fuel on that plate.
The winner of the challenge is the lovely Felix, who, given the choice of the three dishes the judges themselves claim to be “most intimidated” by, decrees that everyone else will be making risotto, then ascends to the upper-story lounge area to lean over the rail and bask in triumph. Her color commentary on the action below is much too brief; she’s so assured and articulate that Fox ought to keep her email and head shot around, to pull out and wave at the judges when it’s time to renegotiate their contracts. It soon becomes clear that many of the people in this room are unfamiliar with risotto, and that this is a crippling impediment to making it. One cook, the behatted Tali, tells another that, in order for the two of them to make it to the end, it may be necessary for them to “throw someone under the bus.” (8:51 P.M.!) But Tali’s willingness to shift blame for the awfulness of his food onto one of his rivals is a plan that goes nowhere, and soon, he is standing humbled in front of the judges, alongside Helene, who before serving the judges uncooked food and a cutesy-poo scallop shaped like a basket already distinguished herself by neglecting her pan and nearly burning down the kitchen, and Dave Mack, whose innovate cooking techniques include a casual attitude towards washing his ingredients. “Some basic stuff,” says Joe, “like feeding us sand—not good.”
Dave is sent home, scratching his head over how the judges couldn’t “see past” the fact that he served them dirty food and appreciate his “culinary genius.” This is a lucky break for Helene, whose behavior when Gordon was grabbing a flaming pan out of her oven and sliding it across the floor—she chose to treat it as a lark, despite the fact that people risking first-degree burns on your behalf are almost always obtuse about seeing the funny side—had made it seem improbable that she would make it to the end of the hour without ligature marks on her neck, let alone with her apron. Frank, an Italian alpha male who clearly faces death by ridicule if he screws up a risotto, and Dave, the one who was played the “thrown under the bus card,” are declared the creators of the best dishes and named team captains for next week’s big challenge. What is that challenge? According to one of the contestants who succeeded in her dream to be featured in the “next week on MasterChef” montage, “It’s what Satan himself would fear!”
- For some reason, the editor decided that tonight’s designated herring would be the wackiness-drenched Monti, featured in eye-popping, lip-biting reaction shots whenever the subject of who might be going home was raised. I have no idea why; the judges never suggested that her cooking tonight was anywhere but squarely in the middle of the field, compared to unsanitary Dave with his day at the beach and some of the other contestants whose spur-of-the-moment culinary inspirations were greeted with cries of, “You put what together with what!?” Maybe somebody just decided that she seems cute and vulnerable enough that viewers would enjoy being invited to worry for her.
- Queen of reaction shots: Becky, who didn’t seem to cook anything memorable one way or another, but who at one point declared that a twist played by the judges had left her and her fellow contestants “gobsmacked,” then spent the rest of the hour trying on facial expressions designed to fit that word.
- The rating above is designed to reflect both tonight’s episode, which was pretty entertaining, and last night’s, which, as the last of the audition shows, really went all the way with the sadism that is available to those working in the reality-competition genre. The way that the show tells a bunch of people that they’ve passed the audition process and then immediately sends a whole bunch of them home emphasizes the likelihood that some people in whom the judges have no real faith get to stick around a few minutes longer, because their appearance or personality carry the promise of good TV. Having watched this show for a while now, I had no trouble predicting that the blind chef would be sticking around but that we’d soon have seen the last of Bubba the redneck and his scary beard and the tearful soldier who, he told us in the last few seconds of his TV career, is not abandoning his dream of opening a restaurant named in honor of his dead son.