Friday, October 11, 2013

Why 'Masterchef Junior' Should Be the Barometer By Which All Reality TV is Measured...

One of my favorite movies is School of Rock. Any time I start to obsess over the increasingly spoiled, entitled, and often dumb youth, I pop in this DVD and immediately start to smile about the talent and interest and ambition that still circulates out there, even if in drips instead of droves. When Dewey (Jack Black) finally accepts that he has a ten year-old kid in his class who is already more talented than he is as an adult, he doesn't use it as a moment of defeat to spiral down into an existential or drunken rabbit hole but instead as a moment of inspiration-- for himself, for those kids, and for anyone watching. I feel the same sense of inspiration and exhilaration when watching Masterchef Junior Friday nights on FOX. After a most recent season of adult Masterchef that focused more on the bullying behavior of one contestant in particular, it would have been easy to get fed up by the fact that as at at-home viewer I'm not actually a participant and can't taste the food anyway and just give up with the show. So the network was extra smart to offer the palate cleansing kids' version now, at a time when aspirational television is quickly replacing anti-hero television.

When I was a kid, I had a fascination with the kitchen. My parents were afraid I'd cut myself or burn myself or just generally waste a bunch of food by messing around with it. So often on weekend mornings I'd awake early and grab whatever dry ingredients I could reach from the lower cabinets (mostly cereal and spices) and mix pretend concoctions in a giant bowl while sitting on the tile floor. It did not smell good, and I'm quite certain eating it could qualify as the right kind of torture to get someone to spill all of their government's secrets. But it was the best I could do. The kids on Masterchef Junior were clearly given (supervised) reign of their respective kitchens and taught to read recipes and experiment with flavors and dishes from a very young age. Only a few episodes into the season, they have already been asked to filet fish, make pasta from scratch, whip their own cream, and create restaurant quality dishes that range from burgers to desserts to Gordon Ramsay's signature beef Wellington.

As a member of the at-home audience with Masterchef Junior, you still can't taste the kids' creations. But what makes this reality cooking competition unlike any other-- or any other reality series on television in general-- is the spirit with which it is infused. These kids are full of a youthful enthusiasm that causes their eyes to absolutely light up when seeing the insides of the pantry or what lies in wait underneath their mystery boxes and to literally have them running from place to place inside the kitchen. They say fun and child-like things like they want to stay in the competition because they "don't want to go back to school," and they are candid enough to admit if they win the prize-- which includes $100,000, presumably for a college fund, they wouldn't buy their parents anything with the money. They work well with each other and show a sense of team spirit when paired up, ultimately offering words of encouragement to their competitors. Though their natural honesty lends itself to a savvy reality TV audience spotting alliances (or first crushes-- seriously, watch how hard Sarah focuses on Gavin during whipping cream contest, yelling "Whip it like a man!" over and over at him), they're not really treating the show like a competition but instead like a cooking camp. And because of that there is not one of them who could walk away winner and leave you dissatisfied with the results. That genuineness has not been found on reality television in years.

These kids' sense of fun but also learning certainly radiates through to the audience, but it is also easily infectious within the kitchen, and for the first time we are getting a softer side of the three judges of this competition-- Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich. Ramsay is known for cursing and throwing plates when his contestants don't live up to his standards, and Bastianich's dead-pan could stop any stressed out adult's heart. But around these kids, they, admittedly to varying degrees, have given into a sense of whimsy-- all while still holding the mini chefs up to extremely high standards. Never before has the viewing audience seen these three exhibit such pure and genuine excitement at watching the creative process of those in the Masterchef kitchen working, let alone at tasting what the chefs put out.

Already so far we have seen the judges share photos of their younger selves, along with their favorite childhood dishes, proving even the best chefs in the world didn't start out with five-star refined palates (and Bastianich's choice of chicken wings proved many of the young chefs in this competition are already steps ahead where he was at their age). But in stressful situations, they also prove willing to take some of that spotlight off a potential failure. When three star chef-lets (my term, but I don't think it will stick) are asked to hand-whip cream to the texture and consistency that it won't run out of the bowl when flipped upside down, the judges make it more of a game by bringing out stools and letting the chef-lets hold the bowls over their heads. Those who produce drippy messes, aka poor or otherwise unfinished whipped creams, can't feel too badly about themselves when they're giggling over drenched judges, after all! 

These judges-- like most of the reality show watching audience-- may have thought they had seen it all. They may have been tired of the formula of the same competitions, the same dishes churned out again and again by people who really should be the rule rather than the exception to it. They may have been jaded by the playing to the camera personalities some producers have pushed through. Or they may have just left weary and wanting in a world of lackluster plates. The dish wasn't quite working anymore-- perhaps like anything you've eaten night after night, week after week, boredom may have set in. But then along came Masterchef Junior to prove that one switch in ingredients could mean all of the difference. 

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