Aaron R. Davis
The first junior edition of MasterChef ended last week. I had reservations about watching it, but since I do watch all of Gordon Ramsay’s shows (even the awful Hotel Hell), I tuned in. I expected a straight train wreck. But what I got was an engaging, enjoyable program that I wish more reality competition shows would follow the example of.
In a world where even the reality shows I used to like (and keep watching, damn me) have become stale jumbles of screaming and scheming, this series showed me that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here’s a list of things MasterChef Junior got right.
One: The contestants were genuine people, not scheming cartoons.
Since all the kids were under 13, they hadn’t had time to develop oversized, camera-ready personas yet. One kid wore loud Hawaiian shirts unironically. The girl who competed in the finale wore an oversized plastic bow in her hair and she owned it. The kids made silly jokes and earnestly talked about how they loved dishes I had never even heard of at their ages. And when they were on camera talking about their rivals and who they wanted to go home, they weren’t mean-spirited or playing characters for screen time; they were just sizing up the situation and being honest about it.
Compare that to this season’s round of the regular MasterChef, where I almost wanted to stop watching because so much camera time was devoted to that horrible South Philly woman who kept talking about how she wanted to punch another contestant in the face just for having the temerity to be a vegetarian. Compare that to any reality competition where someone without much real talent stays around by producer edict at the expense of people who aren’t prepared to be outlandishly bitchy about other people just because it creates “drama.” There was enough drama on the junior edition just watching honest, talented people compete.
And it’s not like there wasn’t a spirit of competition. It’ll be a while before I forget nine-year-old Sarah, cutely sitting on a bean bag and munching on Gummi Bears while talking about why she had chosen which kid chefs to give disadvantages to. It was a competition, but it was clear that no one was trying to trip someone else just to be a jerk; they were trying to get their strongest competitors eliminated in order to win. There was nothing personal or malicious about it. And when someone did get eliminated, there were hugs and genuine tears all around. It was like a primer on what competition is supposed to be.
Which leads me to…
Two: The focus of the show was on the competition, not petty rivalries.
One of my biggest complaints about Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef is that so much of the actual cooking gets lost in the drive for stories. Actually, no: stories would be nice. Instead, so much of the focus is on characters. Who’s getting the villain edit? Who’s getting the underdog edit? Entire contestants get lost because the producers are manufacturing rivalries and mind games that it seems like we barely get to experience the most interesting part of these shows: the food.
Because the producers of this show weren’t evil, they didn’t waste time on inflicting pain and anguish on either the kid contestants or the audience. So we got to experience the creation of some beautiful and creative dishes at the hands of children under the age of 13. It was impressive, engaging and utterly refreshing.
It also helped that the judges didn’t scream at the kids or demoralize them. Surprisingly, they didn’t necessarily tone themselves down, either. They could be just as hard on the kids as they are on the adults, but their criticism was generally constructive rather than personal. Not only that, but the kids who succeeded were praised and complimented. They were allowed to feel a sense of accomplishment, which is not only great for the kid, it’s a breath of fresh air for the viewer. It was a reminder that it’s much more rewarding to see people complimented for doing well than it is to see people get crushed, and that watching talented people work is more exciting than dumbing it down.
Three: No parental presence.
This one is specific to reality competition shows featuring kids, but I feel like mentioning this because the parental presence on MasterChef Junior was almost nothing. Parents appeared at the beginning and end of the season, but they weren’t always looming and we didn’t have to see them rushing in to defend their precious offspring to the camera.
Compare that to another show I’ve been watching, Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, which focuses so much on the stage mothers that the episodes can be a blood pressure-raising ordeal. It’s been a burden because the kids who are the most talented dancers have the mothers who are the most batshit crazy, so I’m in this position of actively rooting against the contestants I like because I can’t take another minute of their moms screaming about how Jojo needs to go home already.
By comparison, MasterChef Junior — a show on FOX, for crying out loud! — had the taste to trust that the audience wanted to see less of the yelling and more of the actual competition.
That might be the best reality competition show I’ve ever seen. More like that, please.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.