And so we bid adieu to another season of the local rendition of Masterchef. It’s done and dusted and there’s nothing much left to say. Hell, I barely even watched the show this time around. Didn’t need to really, because I’ve seen it all before. The tears, the tantrums, the tight, manipulative editing and staged cutaways, the cliff-hangers preceding every commercial break. No different really to last season and to the inevitable one that will follow. It’s like so much clay moulded in a template.
Yet as contradictory as it may seem, I’m quite a fan – if not of the show itself, then for how and why our local version is so successful. The franchise started in Britain over 20 years ago (with a rather prolonged hiatus), and is now produced in 18 different countries and counting. I’ve only seen a handful of them, but firmly believe the kiwi version is among the most comfortable in the format’s skin. The UK version takes itself just a bit too seriously for something that is -and let’s be honest here- Big Brother with a cooker. The Australian version is more upfront about its trashy agenda but is hampered by overly long seasons of almost nightly episodes. Meanwhile the US version is dogged by that uniquely American assumption that all reality television viewers are severely brain damaged and deaf. A not entirely unwarranted assumption, but to my tastes and abilities it’s almost unwatchable. Masterchef New Zealand enjoys a short, snappy run (thanks no doubt to a relatively Spartan budget), and never pretends to be anything other than a bit of stupid fun. And make no mistake. It’s very, very stupid and huge fun. I suspect that a big part of the show’s local success is due to our tiny population. All of us know at least one of the contestants either directly or by a degree or two of separation, and can’t help but gun for the home team. Even I ended up caring about this contestant or that one, and wanting to reverse my car over others. It’s an infectious, addictive and gorgeously guilty pleasure.
Despite appearances, Masterchef is not really even about food. It’s about winners and losers, the gifted and the guileless. It’s about watching ‘ordinary’ people sweat it out in the ring. Contestants are effectively playing parts- although they might not actually realise this- and the eventual outcome has more to do with viewer favourites and brand synergy than kitchen aptitude. To have any kind of qualm with this is to misunderstand the genre completely: it’s a game show. An elaborate, protracted and beautifully choreographed game show, but a game show none the less. It does not aspire to appoint and anoint New Zealand’s greatest cook. It just aims to entertain and hopefully lull us into watching the commercials.
And anyway, where else can we watch a group of socially diverse and largely incompatible punters co-habiting and competing for prizes and attention? (I mean apart from Idol, Got Talent et al.)
But to criticise Masterchef for being contrived and trashy is to miss the point entirely. Yes, it is both of these things, but if it was anything else it would be a failure and a bore. Masterchef New Zealand is no more and no less than it is supposed to be- a fabulously fun and unashamedly tawdry vehicle for some very pricey advertising. Why would or should it be anything more?
So long live Masterchef, and long may we all be sucked into its big, dumb and deeply fun vortex.