The theme this week, at least as it’s embodied in the opening challenges, is down-home Americana, Western and Southern divisions. Monday night’s episode begins out in Monte Hellman country, the kind of location where it’s easy to imagine Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson trudging along searching for water and shade while in a state of existential torment, as Harry Dean Stanton enjoys a snow cone purchased from a stand just out of camera range. “I don’t know where we are,” says Monti, “but there is an intense smell of cow manure.” Oh, honey, you’re on Fox!
Then, Gordon and Joe ride up on horseback, and Graham appears behind them, driving a buckboard. The judges look as if they’re supposed to be dressed Western-style but waited too late the day before Halloween to go to the costume shop, and had to be persuaded by their moms that these leavings from the back of the closet really do make them look like authentic cowpokes. Joe, for example, is wearing a string tie with an Elmer Fudd hat.
Happily for them, they’re addressing the only eight people in the world whose incentive to stay on their good sides outweighs any impulse they might have to laugh at them. On the basis of their performance in the last challenge, two leaders, Frank and Monti, are selected and instructed to pick their teams. Frank picks Becky, Josh, and Felix, and Monti picks Stacey, David, and Christine. Then comes the “Oh, snap!” moment: Graham announces that they have just been picking a team for their rival to command. So, with Frank in charge of the Blue team and Monti in charge of the Red team, they fall to business, having been given 90 minutes to prepare steak dinners for what’s described as “101 cowboys.”
As usual, both sides have their bragging points, mixed together with nightmarish slivers of mishap and chaos. Frank, for example, learns the hard way why it might not be the best idea to have a blind woman grilling ears of corn, especially when no gallant soul has offered to husk it for her. Whatever else happens during the rest of this competition, Christine will always remember the moment when her concentration was interrupted by the sound of Gordon Ramsay saying, “The grill is on fire, guys.” Monti, meanwhile, loses herself in an unleader-like trance while chopping vegetables after telling Becky to start searing the steaks—an instruction that Becky hears as an order to cook the steaks, so that she’s merrily overcooked a goodly portion of her team’s supply until Joe can’t take it anymore and steps in. Finally, the cowboys, who look like well-fed, middle-aged yuppies rustled in from the nearest dude ranch, start riding in. “It looks like a picturesque Western scene,” says Becky, whose favorite picturesque Western movie presumably stars Billy Crystal.
“My dream of being the greatest team leader alive,” says Monti, “is plummeting faster than you can say, ‘Holy [bleep!]” Her reign definitely has its shortcomings, such as the fact that, having served 25 cowpokes, the Red team runs out of sweet potatoes. When the Blue team surges ahead in the voting, Monti says, “I don’t know what the Blue team is serving. Apparently it comes with a side of gold.” Or maybe just any sides at all, which those eating from the Red team’s trough could use to help them choke down their overcooked steaks. Somehow, it develops into a squeaker, coming down to a single vote for the Blue team. After Felix has been granted a pass, Monti, Becky, and Josh are each given six eggs and told to create a poached egg, a soft-boiled egg, one sunny-side up, and a three-egg omelet. “Take a deep breath,” Gordon says “and head back to your stations.” The cameraman, who really ought to be somewhere at the far ends of the earth doing cutting-edge photojournalism, actually manages to capture a shot of Becky taking a deep breath.
None of them manage to knock all four dishes out of the park, but Josh is deemed the one whose soft-boiled egg is most lacking and sent home. He thus misses his chance to be there tonight and meet Paula Deen, so that he might have asked her the question all America wants to ask: When are you and Anthony Bourdain going to do something about this sexual tension thing going on between the two of you? As a piano begins to tinkle on the soundtrack, Paula makes a speech about the importance of family, which is the cue for each of the contestants to receive a letter from home and a photograph of a loved one. Gordon quizzes Christina about her photo: “Who’s that handsome man standing next to you?” I thought she was going to say, “Your guess is as good as mine, Chef,” but instead, she guesses, apparently correctly, that it’s her husband.
Enough with the schmaltz! The contestants are presented with a full array of Southern-style ingredients, and Frank serves up a chicken roulade that wins the down-home sweepstakes, a development that I take as confirmation of my suspicion, which I formed after he cooked a highly praised catfish, that he is actually from Mississippi, and Italian-American gypsies stole him as a child. After Paula Deen takes her leave with a level of fanfare comparable to Santa Claus at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, it is announced that the elimination challenge will consist of a sushi platter, that the contestants will be divided into teams of two, and that Frank, who has immunity, has selected the pairings. Becky is teamed, the way a gangster who has displeased his employers is teamed with an anchor and a length of chain, with David; Monti with Felix; and Christina with Stacey.
Worse yet, this is one of those historic firsts that the show delights in: a MasterChef tag team event, with each of the partners laboring at the table for a certain amount of time, then getting out of the way so the other can put in some work. I rather hate this, and it drags down the rating of what had, up to now, been a pretty entertaining couple of hours of TV. Felix and Monti manage to distinguish themselves, because Felix knows how to prepare sushi, and Monti, who doesn’t, is okay with doing everything Felix tells her to do when she’s up to bat and keeping her mouth shut when she isn’t. But when the other teams disappoint, the judges ream them out, just as if they’d done poorly at something they might conceivably be called on to do in a professional restaurant setting, even though tag-team sushi cooking can’t be practiced in many kitchens. It’s a stunt, and the least the judges can do, it seems to me, is keep things in perspective and say, “Well, that stunt was not designed to bring out the best in you,” instead of speaking as if they’d failed at something that might disqualify them from the restaurant business. Anyway, Stacey, the woman Joe personally pulled out of the crowd after initially rejecting her for the show, is sent home, and Joe is left looking like the kid who had no choice but to shoot Old Yeller. To paraphrase Morris Day, gigolos have feelings, too.
- An elaborately layered comeback for “throw X under the bus.” Watching the Becky-David team flailing, Graham says, “David’s driving the bus, but he might be driving her over a cliff.” Then, when they’re called up to account for themselves, David pleads to Becky, “Don’t throw me under the bus.”
- Christine’s best defense for their dish: “It is what it is.” Somewhere, Sheriff Longmire is begging someone to taser him.