And so, another season of MasterChef Junior comes to a close tonight. The journey seemed both too fast and relentlessly tedious all at once. With the show’s fast elimination structure—sending home at least two kids a week—there’s barely any time to get to know any of the contestants. But even though this third season clipped along at that quick pace, as Caroline Framke pointed out last week, both the show and its viewers have become fatigued. This has been MasterChef Junior’s most predictable and formulaic season yet. Has the show lost some of its spark? Is it just another well oiled machine in the reality cooking competition world, much like its franchise parent MasterChef?

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It’s hard to say exactly when I stopped caring about who won this season, but going into the finale, I definitely wasn’t rooting for anyone in particular. That’s not because I don’t like Nathan or Andrew. On the contrary, I think they’re both talented cooks with impressive technical abilities who bring a lot of creativity to the kitchen. They’re both wholly deserving of the MasterChef Junior title, made evident by the intricate three-course meals they whip out tonight. But there’s nothing particularly surprising about tonight’s finale, just as there hasn’t been much surprising about the show for most of this season. The finale verges on robotic, with former contestants and the finalists’ families cheering around Nathan and Andrew as they prepare their final meals for the judges. Halfway through the episode, the cooking part is already over, and we spend the rest of the episode listening to the judges critique each component of their meals with a whole lot of redundancy.

The food tonight is definitely nothing to scoff at. Both contestants craft truly exceptional three-course dinners that are complex in flavor and also require advanced technical skills. For his appetizer, Nathan makes a roasted fennel gratin with french ham and a shaved fennel salad, and the dish gets mostly positive remarks, with a few concerns from the judges about the texture. But his entree is the real star: an herb-crusted lamb chop with fava beans and white asparagus puree. The judges remark that the cook on the lamb chop is perfect. And his earl grey tea tart with meyer lemon and blood orange coulis also shows off a mastery of assembling rich flavors in an innovative way.

Andrew stands out in the appetizer round with an herbed ricotta cheese with roasted beets and pumpernickel bread. He combines some unlikely flavors here—like cilantro and pumpernickel—but to the judges’ surprise, it all works. Plus, he makes the ricotta from scratch, giving the dish his own personal touch. For his entree, he makes a beef cheek ravioli, but undercooks the beef just slightly. For dessert, he gets creative again with a rice pudding that’s more of a sweet risotto, using arborio rice with figs and verjus.

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Ultimately, it’s that undercooked beef that’s Andrew’s undoing. It’s that one error that helps Nathan edge him out and become the new junior MasterChef. He hopes to put the money toward culinary school so that he can eventually open his own restaurant.

Overall, it isn’t a bad finale. It’s just a bland one, capping off a season that fizzled out pretty early. I’ve mentioned this before, but the first season of MasterChef Junior was so exciting that it made my college friends and I have weekly watch parties featuring a custom MasterChef Junior drinking game. It’s still the sweetest reality competition series you’re ever going to watch. But if it’s going to reach that level of excitement again, it’s going to have to find ways to surprise, and that might mean deviating a little bit from the master MasterChef form

Stray observations:

  • “I put love in these dishes.” Oh man, I really believe Andrew when he says this.
  • Nathan looks truly shocked when his name is called, and it’s adorable.
  • I love that the show kept trying to sell this finale as an East Coast vs. West Coast thing.
  • Even though they don’t really add much substance, I really like that testimonials from the former contestants are included throughout the episode. It’s nice to see the other kids rooting for the finalists. That kind of earnest camaraderie is what has always set MasterChef Junior apart.
  • Based on how the season two and season three schedule went down, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that season four starts next week. It doesn’t, for the record. But it has already been renewed for a fourth season, scheduled for some time later this year.

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