Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Networks have been trying to make a good competition reality series with kids as the stars for years, but the pint-sized set has proved remarkably challenging to build such a contraption around. The family edition of The Amazing Race seemed like a surefire success until it arrived and rapidly proved to be the worst season of that venerable franchise, while Kid Nation hit the airwaves with lots of controversy about producers exploiting their young charges, only to mostly end up being so boring it was swept away after one, low-rated season. Reality shows are built around making adults act childish in most cases, but kids are all too often completely aware of the camera, hopefully proving they’re worthy of short-lived stardom.
So it was only natural to assume MasterChef Junior would be one of the fall TV season’s biggest calamities. Adding onto the inherent problem of building a reality show around kids was the fact that the series extended Gordon Ramsay’s reach over the Fox reality empire. Ramsay is now responsible for four shows on the network—five if MasterChef Junior counts as a separate series, rather than another season of MasterChef. Each has its moments, but Ramsay’s not so fascinating that it makes sense to follow him from show to show. While MasterChef is the best series he’s been associated with, this summer’s season showed how tired both the format and Ramsay’s persona are becoming.
An imperfect but largely enjoyable short-run reality series, MasterChef Junior enlivens both the idea of a reality show featuring kids and Ramsay’s persona by putting the two in the same mix. The joke leading into the show was that it would simply devolve into Ramsay yelling at kids and calling them donkeys, but the chef, a father himself, proves to be a complete natural when dealing with kids. This could all feel calculated—TV star known for being an asshole is a big softie around children—but Ramsay’s evident and genuine delight in shepherding his young charges sidesteps any of that.
The aforementioned joke misses the fundamental thing that sets MasterChef apart from a lot of other reality cooking competitions: It truly wants to teach both the contestants (and hopefully by extension viewers at home) how to be better cooks. The contestants arrive as skilled amateurs and leave as masters, or so the series would have you believe, and that educational aspect helps drag the show through the dry and predictable patches.
It’s this aspect that makes MasterChef Junior the first reality show the first to properly make use of child contestants. These kids aren’t just precocious scene-stealers who want to be on TV—they’re kids who can already cook better than many people in the audience. In the premiere, one contestant auditioned by preparing sushi. Other complicated dishes prepared by these 9- to 13-year-olds have included lava cake and beef Wellington; the most recent episode actually the kids loose on restaurant service in Los Angeles. As the season progressed, they’ve all improved, and it’s fun to just watch kids who really like to do something go to town. These are the restaurant owners of the future, and they make for compelling TV.
Plus, the pressures of a cooking competition allow the kids’ personalities to emerge. Sarah, who made it remarkably far in the competition for a 9-year-old, has very specific ideas about what she wants and isn’t afraid to share them. Sofia, clad in thick-rimmed glasses and a perpetual expression of amusement, frequently looks lost in thought, forgetting there are cameras watching her—even in talking-head interviews. Alexander has a quiet confidence in his own ability, while Troy wants to do what he wants to do and can be kind of a jerk about it. Yet the kids are also unfailingly supportive of each other and come together to cooperate in ways that would make any corporate team leader jealous.
MasterChef Junior is obviously staged and predictable in the way many competition reality series are nowadays, but it’s sweet and sincere, and it features great moments of Ramsay and fellow judges Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot jumping in to help the kids when they get in over their heads in the kitchen. Not every reality show could survive being this nice, but MasterChef Junior succeeds because it provides a window into how these kids, competitive though they may be, are basically good at heart.
Based on: Junior MasterChef, created by Franc Roddam, Karen Ross, and John Silver
Starring: Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, Joe Bastianich
Airs: Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Format: Hour-long cooking competition
Five episodes watched for review.