Reality TV represents a low point in the history of culture for me. Take Survivor for instance: a show that purports to be about humans triumphing against the elements, but is really an excuse to watch people grub around in the dirt and debase their morals in search of cash.
But hey, at least they have to actually run around in loin cloths and endure some hunger and cold. All the sub-humans on the glut of shows containing the word "Jersey" have to do is act out their crassest impulses and they are instant stars. And don't get me started on the Kardashians. Trash with cash is still trash, it's just more nauseating trash. In the long term we all know the nadir that reality TV is quickly approaching: a show about watching constipated people straining on the toilet. That's what it's all about in the end: bodily excretions.
So it takes a lot for me to not just watch but actually love a reality show. Masterchef Australia is the second show to manage that (the first was Project Runway, but the current season sucks), but I've never been as genuinely impressed and touched by a show as I have by Masterchef Australia season 2. I have tried to figure out what exactly I love about the show, what lifts it above the rest of this dreary, grubby genre.
1. Real talent
As with Project Runway, Masterchef contestants can do something that takes incredible talent, something most people wouldn't dare to try or have the first idea of how to do. They cook incredible food in almost no time at all, and compete against some of the world's top chefs in celebrity challenges.
Contrast that with a show like Big Brother. What do you have to do? Sit around, say "controversial" things, act like an ignorant boor, and hope your antics are pleasing enough to the millions of slack jawed yokels who will vote you in or out of the house. Voyeurism at it's most mind numbingly banal.
2. Real people with real emotions
When contestants hug each other on Masterchef Australia, you really feel like they mean it. This isn't that mandatory American "OMG!" hug that you see on other shows. These guys and girls cry when their friends are eliminated. Yes, there's some bitchiness, but it's marginal and incidental, and not the core of the show.
And they also show negative emotions more willingly. When a group of previously eliminated contestants were allowed back into the show, several of the top 8 made no attempt to hide their dismay. Contrast that to other competitive shows like the revolting The Bachelor: every emotion has the metallic tang of cold, calculating performance. All lizard brain and no frontal lobe.
I've never seen the original BBC version, so I'm not sure if this existential warmth is peculiar to the Australian version of the show. Either way, it makes the whole thing so much more real (as opposed to other reality TV shows that feel completely staged and stilted).
I never thought I'd fall in love with a show peopled by Aussies. The idea of sitting through Neighbours et al makes me physically shudder. But in the end the Australians on Masterchef have proved to be one of the main reasons I keep watching. Not only are they varied and interesting characters - a testament to Australia's urbane and culturally diverse society - they are also filled with the spirit of self belief and positivity.
Australians have shaken off the low self esteem of being a "colony" and are now closer to the Americans (I mean the cosmopolitan, progressive ones) than to their sclerotic European forebears. You can't help but be buoyed up by their cheerful good humour and fair spiritedness. These are truly civilised and evolved people, and that makes them a joy to watch and get to know.
4. George, Gary and Matt
Everything in point 2 and 3 goes double for the judges. When they encourage, you feel their passion. When they chide you feel their concern. When they enjoy, you enjoy with them. And let's not forget that these are all world famous chefs and foodies.
Masterclass isn't my favourite part of the show, but it shows just how good Gary and George are at what they do. These are true masters of their art, and their enthusiasm and passion is magnetic. They see food as more than just something to eat, or something to sell - they see it as an integral part of culture, of enjoyment, of society and of life.
On top of all the skill and taste, they are also really good fun. George and Gary's banter is natural and warm and their repartee with the contestants is fantastic. You feel their genuine affection for the contestants, and their genuine sadness when they are eliminated. And Matt's flamboyant outfits are always a treat.
5. The clever format
The sheer variety of challenges and tasks keeps the show interesting. Whether they're straining their creativity in an invention test, or sweating over technical skills and presentation in a pressure test, you're always intrigued (and sometimes horrified) by the outcome. And because all of this variety is held together by structure (each week has one of each challenge), you never get confused or lost as to where they are in the competition.
6. Celebrity chefs
Even if they just showcased Australian food stars, the show would be interesting, but these guys have featured the best of the best from around the world. The ultimate treat for me was watching the contestants cook with the incomparable Heston Blumenthal, though Fergus Henderson was a close second. And there are literally dozens more of these incredible foodies on the show.
7. Adriano Zumbo
Although many celeb chefs featured are more famous than Zumbo
, none of them are quite as amazing or amusing. Aside from his incredible talents as a pâtissier, he is also hilariously dry and witty. The Masterchef organiser have decreed him to be there torturer-in-chief - the go to guy for impossible pressure tests - and he never disappoints. The V8 cake episode is a particular favourite of mine, although the macaron tower was also pretty mind boggling.
I don't think I can say it better than I did on Twitter
Adriano Zumbo is a mad genius. That impish grin - a serial cruller, a stone cold pâtissier, a chocolate pornographer.
The cheerful sadist himself
It's not all sweet thyme...
Masterchef has its flaws of course. I find it unwatchable without PVR, due to the annoying, repetitive editing ticks they have copied from American shows. You know what I mean: the way they cut to an ad break just before a winner is announced, and then repeat the last 5 seconds of dialogue from before the break, just to build suspense (AKA irritation).
They've also inherited that annoying habit of repeating the obvious not one but three times. "If I lose this challenge, I am going home." Yes, thanks Aaron, we heard you the first two times. Thank you PVR, you beauty.
...but it's changed my life
It's pretty rare, at least in my experience, for TV to have a material effect on your life. It's entertaining at times, but it's generally pretty shallow. But Masterchef has me excited about cooking again, trying new recipes and new foods. That's marvellous if you think about it: a bunch of cheery Aussies on the other end of the planet have changed my attitude to food. Good on ye I say.