I watch cooking shows. Let’s be really clear here – I watch *a lot* of cooking shows. This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me – I’ve been obsessed with cooking for a very long time, and I take it pretty damn seriously — how many people do you know who buy twenty-pound bags of onions just to practice knife skills – the French Onion soup that results is just an inadvertent consequence of that activity (though it’s damn tasty).
For many years I’ve been a fan of the BBC show “Masterchef”. The format is fairly straightforward – amateur cooks from around Britain compete for a handful of “on air” places and then progress through a series of challenges. The winner is dubbed “Masterchef” and these individuals generally go on to professional culinary careers. It’s a typically British program – very sedate and laid back. The contestants are chosen prior to the main production, and their participation is based entirely on the quality of the food they produce. Most of them lack any sort of “typical” television charisma, so the charm of the show comes from watching really regular folks cook astoundingly good food with virtually no experience. Honestly, the program screams Home-Brew-BBC throughout, and I can’t imagine it being interesting to anyone outside the UK other than someone as food-crazy as I am.
But that turned out to not be entirely true. MasterChef developed a dedicated following in… Australia. Aware of this, an Australian production company acquired the rights to the “MasterChef” IP and went about re-inventing the property in a rather dramatic fashion. Instead of a compressed broadcast schedule that consisted entirely of highlights from the contest, the AU production locked the contestants in a “Top Chef”-like house, limiting their outside contact for the duration of competition. Then they staged their challenges on a daily basis over a three month period. And they recorded absolutely everything. The result? A single season of “Masterchef AU” is seventy-plus (yes, that seven plus a zero) episodes. The show is broadcast daily over a period of fourteen-to-sixteen weeks. It’s an insane amount of content.
A year after the first series of Masterchef AU aired, a New Zealand broadcaster caved in and created a local version. Lacking the resources of the AU production, Masterchef NZ duplicated the format of its’ AU parent, but condensed the program to a once-a-week experience. While this reduced audience involvement with the various participants, it didn’t eliminate it, and the NZ program proved to be a huge success with the local audience.
The NZ program, compacted to a “manageable” format, consequently ended up on the North American radar. The format had become condensed to a manageable, dramatic program. Casting was a no-brainer given the success of the AU program. The judges consist of a distant, silent chef who reserves judgment, an enthusiastic and experienced chef who supports the contestants, and a hyper-critical food master. Inevitably Gordon Ramsay was asked to participate (heck, he was likely involved from minute one).
Consequently, we now have “MasterChef US”. I don’t think it’s a horrible thing. Hell, any show that celebrates the skill of utterly unknown cooks is a good thing – it reminds us that anyone can cook a great meal – though it’s important to keep in mind that being able to cook does not make anyone great… Just that a great cook can emerge from anywhere (yes, I’m quoting “Ratatouille” here, but it’s appropriate).
What fascinates me is that a US audience is now watching a program which is based on an NZ format, which was derived from an AU show, which had its genesis in a BBC program. Damn! What does this mean for “original content”? You can work your ass off developing an amazing idea, but that hour of primetime broadcasting is probably not going to get allocated to your masterpiece. It’s going to go to a show that a handful of assholes like me made a sufficiently loud stink about. And there’s no guarantee the show will be any good. Hell, history suggests that it’ll probably stink. And “MasterChef US” is certainly not a masterpiece. It’s not terrible, but if you’ve got access to the Australian program then it’s little more than a poor imitation.
I wish the US producers had the opportunity to create a show modeled more closely on the AU version of the program, rather than getting themselves stuck into the standard North American weekly format. A daily show would be innovative within the US marketplace, and would likely find a huge audience.
I guess it’ll happen when it happens. And that will likely be sooner rather than later. After all, they’re going to have to replace those failing soap operas eventually.