May 31, 2017

Watching children suffer

By Brett Yates

The fifth season of “MasterChef Junior,” the competitive reality series on Fox, concluded in May. One of roughly 90 shows hosted by the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, “MasterChef Junior” is a spinoff of “MasterChef,” an amateur cooking contest, replicated exactly but for the ages of the participants, who, in this iteration, range from 8 to 13.

“MasterChef” has always been better than its closest cable analogue, Bravo’s “Top Chef,” mostly on account of its greater diversity of personalities — which emerge from all walks of life, rather than just the kitchens of America’s gourmet restaurants — and a stronger emotional appeal rooted in its humble home cooks’ quest for a sliver of the recognition achieved long ago by the pros of Food Network et al. There is something deeply touching about watching a privately honed talent unfurl, finally, in public, especially when — as in the case of the mothers and fathers who primarily cook for their children — no public display was initially planned.

Still, as a longtime “MasterChef” fan, I drew some shame-based line at the juvenile edition, which struck me as a cash-grab: the set and concept were already in place, and naturally the workaholic-cum-rageaholic Ramsay would find a way to put them to double duty, even if 8-year-olds don’t actually know how to cook — that could be fixed in post-production, right? But this year I gave in, and boy, do I regret not lowering my standards sooner: “MasterChef Junior” is fantastic viewing.

The contestants are even more endearing, and the feats they pull off are — with their ages taken into account — far more spectacular. At age 29, I can only dream of being as competent and confident in my easygoing daily life as these fearless tweens are beneath the glare of the TV lights and the glare of Gordon Ramsay. Now that I’ve finished watching a season, I have a few important reflections.

The first thing that occurred to me is that surely very few of these kids will grow up to become chefs. They definitely have the talent for it, but the skills that create a “MasterChef” champion — primarily, grace under pressure, strong judgment, and attention to detail — could equally be applied to some other field, and the personalities of the kids on “MasterChef Junior” don’t align at all with those of the contestants on “Top Chef.”

The children of “MasterChef Junior” loosely belong to two categories: some of them are science nerds, for whom cooking functions as an extension of their chemistry-set tinkering; the others are budding achievers, for whom their stint on “MasterChef Junior” will be just one bullet point on a carefully crafted college application. The first group is adorably awkward on camera; the second group already speaks with an Obama-level poise and precision, which is kind of adorable too.

They’re all almost unnervingly intelligent, and they don’t seem to have any of the slightly artsy dysfunction that characterizes many of the cooks on “Top Chef,” who tend to smoke too much and drink too much and, although they’re more surely ambitious than their peers who don’t make it to TV, remain at least to some degree sensualists — hence their devotion to food above all else. On “MasterChef Junior,” the “nerds” will end up working as engineers for NASA or Google, and the “achievers” will be CEOs or politicians. The punk rock atmosphere of the kitchens described in Anthony Bourdain’s books wouldn’t suit them at all.

Once one has deduced this, the show is in some sense stripped of consequence: these kids are theoretically pursuing their dreams, but in all likelihood, their dreams will change, so who cares if they’re successful here or not? That interpretation doesn’t hold, however, because when small, lovable children want something with all their heart, it’s impossible not to root for them — which brings me to the second “problem” of the show.

Here it is: a huge component of “MasterChef Junior” is the experience of watching children cry. Each contestant has pinned his or her hopes on something big, and all but one will fall short — and as viewers, we’ll witness the emotional devastation that follows. Nearly all of these kids are uncommonly privileged — to judge by their familiarity with fancy cuisine — but when they lose, their suffering is real, and on a basic level it feels wrong to televise the pain of actual children for the sake of entertainment. The show makes up for it by operating, additionally, as a showcase for the authentic joy of the kids whom it exploits and as a tribute to the amazing things that young people can do; its ruthlessness is built into the format and is to some degree excusable for that reason.

But, then, there’s that thing Gordon Ramsay often does on “MasterChef” when the episode’s loser is about to be announced and, to add to the suspense and the surprise, Ramsay pulls a switcheroo, asking one contestant to step forward as the presumable victim while the others exhale a premature sigh of relief. He’ll adopt a somber tone, explaining what the cook did wrong, and then, after a pause, he’ll announce that the errant cook gets to stay on the show, and abruptly he’ll eliminate someone else instead.

It’s a cruel trick intended to crank up the drama, and even if we can accept it on “MasterChef,” which is populated by adults who understand that they’ve signed up for an entertainment program, no version of it has any place on “MasterChef Junior.” That doesn’t quite stop Ramsay, however, and it’s here — in places like this — that the “guilt” of guilty-pleasure TV kicks in. Frankly, “MasterChef” and its spinoffs are more compelling than any of the supposedly sophisticated dramas on HBO, but at times one wishes that network TV could learn some of the self-regard of the pretentious “prestige TV” that, according to our elite cultural tastemakers, will one day replace all this idiot-box trash that’s actually fun to watch.

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