Yes, while I may have to watch Big Brother out of duty, it’s nice to have something to watch out of sheer pleasure – it’s the return of Masterchef! And at a time when some of the reality juggernauts are looking distinctly clapped out, maybe some of the telly execs could spare a thought for the rocketing popularity of Masterchef since its relaunch a few years back – something that’s been almost viral, with no real publicity behind it.
Really, it’s just a question of getting some basic elements right. The contestants go on a journey, not just in the takes-out-onion X Factor sense, but in the sense that they are trying to demonstrate a skill and they have to work hard to hone their skill as they progress. It helps no end to have meaningful tasks. The heats, I see, have their well-established format. We start with the quickfire invention test of making a dish from some random ingredients. Having knocked six down to three, we then put our amateurs in a pro kitchen to see if they can take the pressure. Then it’s the two-course meal of their own design, a chance to show off their potential. In the later stages we’ll see some more esoteric tasks, but it’s good to have the basics there as a platform to build on.
The whole thing proceeds at a fair clip, with quick eliminations, and that means it doesn’t outstay its welcome by dragging on for months on end. And, always a bonus, you have judges with credibility. And no public vote either. Partly that’s to do with the show being pre-recorded, but it also makes perfect sense. In a singing or dancing show we at home can make some judgements; in a cooking show, we can tell whether a plate of ravioli is nicely presented, but we certainly can’t taste it. You get around that little hurdle by screening the judges’ discussions, so that their decisions don’t look arbitrary. The whole format hangs together rather nicely.
Which is not to say there aren’t ups and downs. Later on, you get to warm to some of the contestants; even in the heats you do have the odd moment. You are driven to scratch your head at some people’s weird combinations. And, just like the X Factor auditionees with their penchant for Robbie, Whitney and Mariah, the old chestnuts keep on coming. I look forward to seeing John and Gregg fake enthusiasm as they face yet another pan-fried sea bass… You know, there’s a surfeit of competitions on the box, and an even greater glut of cookery shows. But I’ll make an exception for this one, as a sterling example of how you can take something very basic and, by just doing it well, create something that’s compulsive viewing. Nice to see it back.
Rud eile: If you didn’t know already, the 2008 Weblog Awards are now open for voting. Get over there now and make your mark for Madam Miaow in the top ten culture category.