At this point in any season of MasterChef, the sadistic element can feel a little too close to the show’s surface for comfort. During the first several minutes of tonight’s broadcast, Gordon, Graham, and Joe are still auditioning potential contestants. By now, there’s already been two hours’ worth of drama invested in the audition process, but the seasoned viewer may have begun to dread the arrival of the actual competition, when the judges will start rapidly culling the herd. Knowing how quickly heads are going to start rolling, you may feel that the last thing you want to watch are more tears and sad but inspiring stories, and more challenges from the judges in which the supplicant convinces them of his worthiness.
But that’s what we get. A fellow named Howard who served as an assistant machine gunner in Afghanistan offers the judges a peach cobbler that Gordon proclaims “rustic” and “charming.” And he’s also a carbon-based life form, which is pretty much the sole requirement for getting Graham’s vote. But Joe is unconvinced. Appearing not to have heard the words “machine gunner” and “Afghanistan,” he looks the quivery Howard dead in the eye and tells him, “It takes a lot of courage to come I here and present a dessert.” At Joe’s urging, Howard walks him out into the waiting area and introduces him to his grandmother, understanding that by some Italian code of honor, Joe is now duty-bound to let him on the show. The last contestant is Jimmy, a large, friendly dude with a semi-Mohawk haircut who has invented a terrifying concoction made of lobster, popcorn, cashews, and coconut. When the judges hand him an apron, the voiceover announcer seems to imply that this is because they messed up the count and had one last spot they had to fill anyway, but later developments will make it appear that this may have been an act of misdirection.
Once the home cooks are gathered in the MasterChef kitchen, Gordon whips out the prop of the night: An adorable, cuddly little lamb. Don’t worry, he says, after everyone has oohed and aahed over it, you won’t be cooking this lamb. Then the doors swing open, and a herd of lambs fill the room, giving the home cooks a chance to laugh good-naturedly, and to complain, in the cutaway interviews, about how un-cute it is when a lamb shits on you. But they’re just props too: Despite the thought that leaps into every viewer’s mind, the cooks aren’t actually made to catch a lamb and cut its throat. Unless they were, and somehow, it didn’t make the final edit. I hate to sound as if I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to see a lamb snuffed on the air, but all in all, it seems kind of like a cheat. And it is disappointing that, when the lambs are milling around shitting and pissing on the floor and Gordon is shiny-eyed with pleasure at his own whimsy, none of the contestants yell at Joe, parroting back the line he delivered umpteen times during the audition process: “This is a serious cooking competition!”
The cooks take their stations and set to work preparing their lamb dishes, and immediately Joe’s radar goes off. “There’s people now showing their true colors,” he says, “and they need to be eliminated from this kitchen.” Moving among them like a shark, he selects three people we’ve only just been introduced to and unceremoniously drop-kicks them from the premises. Another good-sized chunk of the contestants are allowed to complete their dishes before being sent on their way. Yet more are made to offer their dishes up for taste-testing before their fates are decided. Jimmy’s dish is sampled alongside that of the high-spirited Brian, who yells all the time, wears a lot of red and black, and seems to be popping his eyes whenever he’s on-camera. I had already figured that Brian would be this season’s specially featured exhausting, hard-to-take camera hog and freak, but in a very happy surprise, he disappears down the trap door, leaving the robust but largely unobjectionable Jimmy still standing. Brian goes down in good spirits, hollering at the camera that he’s “gonna go home and do my thing: Blowin’ up trees, gettin’ me some road kill, shootin’ up squirrels!” He’ll have his own reality show by the end of the week.
The last cook in the dock of judgment is Luca, who Gordon let on the show this year, apparently over his better judgment, after rejecting him last season. Gordon basically tells him that it’s all over, that “Not everyone can come into the MasterChef kitchen.” While Luca bravely fights back the tears, Gordon expands on his theme: “You’re a great home cook. Lots of passion. Keep cooking, please. Do not let this be the end of your culinary dream. Let it be… the beginning, because you’ve made it to the MasterChef kitchen!” It’s at moments like this that I find myself wondering if any punishment would be too cruel for Gordon. Smear him with barbecue sauce and toss him in the bear cave? Skin him alive and roll him in salt? Make him ride home with Brian?
Now that the core cast is in place, we can get down to what really matters: Establishing who hates whose guts. The principal antagonists right now are down-to-earth, regular gal Krissi and the more glamorous Natasha, who Krissi seems to have cast in the Sandra Bullock role in a movie playing in her head, while she herself takes the Melissa McCarthy role. As far as Natasha is concerned, the feeling is mutual. Having won the first “real” challenge, she is allowed to pick the ingredient that the commoners will have to struggle with in the elimination challenge, She goes with langoustine. Cooling her heels while watching the action from the upper tier, she sneers at Krissi’s langoustine mac ‘n cheese. Krissi explains to Joe that Natasha hates her. “Why would she hate you?” asks Joe. “You don’t even know each other.” For her part, Krissi hates both Natasha and Howard, but Howard at least gives her good reason to be miffed at him. He disparages her technique and predicts that she’ll be going home while she stands right behind him, in the background of the shot, holding up a blurry middle digit.
In the end, the judges think that Krissi’s dish is delicious, though they reserve their highest praise for Jessie and Jordan, who are given the dubious honor of being named team captains for next week’s challenge. As for the loser of the week—well, the smart money looks to be on the still-shaky Howard, whose “underwhelming, bland spinach mango salad” is deemed such a “waste of time” that Gordon refuses to even touch it with a stick. But instead, he gets to stick around and the judges dismiss the sassy, flirtatious Sasha Fox, who is such obviously good TV that I’ve never typed her name before now, partly because I assumed I’d have many more chances to do so and wanted to pace myself. If nothing else, it makes it seem that “good TV” really isn’t the primary consideration here.
- Overworked phrases of the week: Gordon accuses two different contestants of being “one-trick ponies.” At least it’s a real phrase that people use outside the confines of cyberspace. Two different contestants gleefully predict that their rivals will commit “epic fails.” I could also do with a little less talk about people's asses, whether they're presenting them for being kissed or what have you.
- For his part, Joe can’t seem to stop using the word “fake” and threatening to call people “fakers.” I’m not sure how you judge whether a recipe is “fake” or not, or if that fakeness takes precedence over whether it tastes good. But whatever he’s on about, I hope he moves past it, soon. He sounds like a teenage music geek during his “authenticity” phase.