Cooking shows aren’t for everyone. I mean, I glean a fair amount of enjoyment from watching chefs prepare food. It’s informative, it makes me a better cook (something I’ve been striving for lately) and, if nothing else, it makes me hungry. I’m a big fan of food, and so naturally I am big fan of food television. But for most folks, the food alone doesn’t cut it. Sometimes, you need some yelling, screaming and good, old fashioned tears.

This is where FOX’s MasterChef succeeds. Boil it down, and it really isn’t about the food at all. Like all good reality television, it’s about the characters, their interactions and, most importantly, their meltdowns.

Judges Gordon Ramsay (is this guy everywhere or what?) Graham Elliot and the villainous Joe Bastianich begin the competition with 100 MasterChef hopefuls and will whittle them down until only one remains. This Highlander of cooking is crowned MasterChef and receives a quarter of a million dollars.

There is nothing unique about MasterChef, in essence, that sets it apart from other cooking competitions. It’s actually quite similar to Next Food Network Star, in that most of the contestants are not professional chefs, but rather home cooks with little to no culinary background. They’re single moms and dads, firefighters, truckers, beauty queens, attorneys and rednecks.

Criticism of MasterChef‘s first season tended to focus on the general over-dramatization of everything, and it’s sad to see that not much has really changed this season. The premiere opens with the judge’s hollow, echoing voices, speaking words of wisdom like gods from on high. Gordon supplies this particular gem: “Wanting is not enough. You’ve got to do more.”

Gee thanks, Gordon. I was planning on sitting around and wanting to win really, really hard, but you’ve made me rethink my entire strategy.

Oh, and: “Your biggest competitor is yourself.” (*QUE MUSIC SWELL*)

The judges are brought in by helicopter for no apparent reason and set loose on the 100 hopeful cooks gathered in a huge warehouse like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A large, makeshift kitchen has been constructed inside the warehouse. The cooks are given an hour to prepare their meals, and then they’re taken, one-by-one, into the back room. There, they present their meals to the judges, who taste the food and quickly interview the chefs. The judges sit on a giant stovetop burner. They would be even more intimidating if they sat behind a wall of fire like Firelord Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

It’s all a very standard affair. No frills or funny twists thrown at the contestants just yet. The formula works here, I suppose.

When I said earlier that MasterChef is a food show that spends almost zero time focusing on the food, I meant it. It’s all about the contestants and their sob stories, and we’re only given brief, fleeting glimpses of their methods and their meals. I really wish we could see more of the ingredients and the processes. Then again, this is a FOX cooking show, and not everyone finds those aspects interesting. But why not have the contestants talk about what they’re preparing, and why? What’s their strategy going into the competition? We never really find anything like that out. But man, do people cry a lot in that warehouse.

I think the real draw of this show is the judges (two of whom are just unapologetic jerks). Gordon acts like fairly typical Gordon — a total hard-ass with occasional bursts of tenderness. At one point, he forces a contestant to run laps and perform push-ups, only to tell him, “It’s a no from me.” Two contestants later, he’s hugging a crying woman. We all know Gordon for his foul mouth and pompous attitude, but I have never had the pleasure of experiencing the cold, shriveled soul known as Joe Bastianich.

Joe does this thing where he walks up, takes a single forkful of the contestant’s meal, sniffs it, eyes it, reluctantly takes a bite, chews, turns around, and sits back in his chair. He doesn’t say a word, and his face betrays no emotion whatsoever, except for maybe “You made me get up from my chair to take a bite of that?” He’s like a bald, menacing statue — placid, hard and cold. And he’s totally awesome. “If we say your food is good or bad, we’re right,” he says, his face completely expressionless. This guy means business.

If Gordon and Joe are the bad cops, then Graham Elliot is the good cop. He’s kind and gentle and boring and oftentimes likes the dishes that Joe and Gordon hate. But it’d be overkill to have three cutthroat judges, so the addition of Graham works as a necessary evil (or a necessary good, I guess).

MasterChef is a show of paradoxes. It’s a cooking competition that features very, very little cooking. It’s a show that focuses on the contestants and their struggles and dreams, only to have the judges rip them to shreds and send them packing. I don’t understand what the goal of the show is, and the tone is constantly off, veering wildly between sympathy and jeer. For me, it’s pretty far from my favorite cooking competition on TV. But as some weeknight fluff, it does the job. If nothing else, Joe Bastianich makes this show worth watching.

Tune in this Monday and Tuesday at 8pm on FOX for the two-part MasterChef premiere.

(Image courtesy of FOX)

Matt Click

Staff Writer, BuddyTV