Masterchef is back on the teev again. I know because people are posting updates about o Facebook, and the conversation if you're not careful veers into familiar discussions about the latest contestants. It's not a conversation I'm part of as I'm one of the few who have not got into the show. In a way that's strange since I am such a keen foodie, but I've generally explained that I'm too busy to commit to the exhaustive programming of the show. True enough, but there are other reasons also.
I have caught the odd show here and there, so know what it's all about. And the show's popularity and influence has been so pervasove that I have been aware if only distantly of the lastest permutations and controversies as if by osmosis. Though I've not been part of the conversation I have on occasion been able to throw in the odd copnversational tidbit.
I watched it again last night, almost by accident. Searching for something to occupy me I came across it and find myself caught up in the trials and tribulations the show puts its contestants through.
I was not surprised to find it compelling TV. That's the rap after all, and on the few occasions I've watched previously it's not boredom that kept mefrom coming back. You put a bunch of ambitious, desperate people in a theatrical environment, pit one against the other while the chefs judging, like gods on Olympus, contrive challenges for their supplicants. There's drama aplenty, as well as lots of food - what's not to like?
Well, something. I switched off at the end of it thinking I won't be watching again. It was like I had eagerly tucked into a delicious meal only to find something was a little off with it. That's what I think about the show - it's a little off. Clearly I'm very much in the minority view.
What I dislike about Masterchef is what I dislike about all reality shows. I hate the voyeuristic impulse that draws society to watch the dramas and frequent humiliations of those brave enough to enter the fray. I hate the contrivance of it, how clearly it is manufactured to create those moments of controversy or high drama that brings in the big ratings points. Ultimately I hate how the individual is subverted to commercial pragmatism - and hate what it says about our society that we flock to this our nose pressed to the glass eager for the latest manufactured triumph or tragedy.
Masterchef is probably more benign than most reality shows, but there still feels something Big Brother-ish about it (and I mean that in the sense of Orwell's book, as well as the tiresome program). It's like we the people are being fed this pap to entertain us, a modern take on Lions versus Christians. It's a plaything, a diversion, mental mush.
Strange also that for a innately competitive person I find the ten little Indians approach tacky. I know that many of these contestants will become household names, will be lauded, and are generally treated well within the confines of the show. Still, they are pawns in the drama, and the drama comes first. They are individuals, people who have screwed up their courage and ambition to take the punt, they deserve to be respected for that regardless of their cooking talent, rather than elements to be exploited for dramatic effect.
This was brought home to me powerfully last night in the last minute or so of the program. It was an elimination, 24 were being whittled down to 12. Three were asked to step forward in the last batch of six. The chef told them they were out of luck and they visibly deflated, before going on to add they would have to put their lives on hold because they had made the cut.
Here is the program in miniature. One moment hopes and dreams are dashed, the next realised, at least for now. Well, that's good for them, but what of the three standing behind them? Their experience was the opposite - one moment they dared to believe, the next made to realise their belief was foolish. This is cruelty in the service of TV ratings - and we lap it up.
Which brings me to the chefs and food critics judging on Masterchef. I love my food. I love eating out. I love reading about it. It's a big part of my life - and yet I wonder when chefs become celebrities. They are placed on a pedestal by virtue of their ability to whip up a top meal. Well, that's impressive and much valued, but it is another job. The Greek gods allusion is apt I think. Their word is gospel, their mien often imperious, they give, they take, and generally become more self-important by the minute.
I'm not going to be able to avoid Masterchef, and I have no real intention to. In the end it's no big deal one way or another - if people choose to submit to this, and others to watch it then fine. It's not for me though. I like my TV more honest.