Top Chef - S9 Postmortem
No, I didn't lose my will to finish the season recap. Though I don't know why I watch the reunion shows. It's like they take all of the stuff I hate most about the show and make an hour long special out of it. But no, this is not the reason for my extreme tardiness. It's just been a very, very, very busy week.
In any case, I'm not sure that I have any great wisdom to share this season, beyond echoing the sentiment that it was a disappointing one. What's doubly frustrating, however, is that it got so much right while still getting so much wrong.
First, the good:
- Last Chance Kitchen. Arguably more enjoyable than the regular show. Why? Probably because the challenges were mostly very straightforward, people were cooking for their lives, and the short format meant that what was missing was the usual dramatic BS. No fuss, no muss, compelling TV. InterTV. Whatever.
- The play-in round. Again, I hope this returns. It seems like it really helps to eliminate some of the clunkers that can make the first third of the season a frustrating joke. And it's good TV. I'm more than okay with this practice sticking around.
- The finale format. Seriously, bronze it please. One could argue with the inclusion of some of the dregs of the 29-person field in the sous cookoff, but that strikes me as a small sin in an otherwise fabulous structure. The whole setup made for just enough reality show intrigue while keeping things simple and straightforward and allowing the chefs to do their thing. If the show does exactly this for the finale every single season, I'll be thrilled.
- Showing off the location. Though the manner in which they did so wasn't always the most conducive to good cooking, and though I may be in the minority here, I really, really appreciate that they tried to get out of the kitchen a bit and show off the locale. Though it has little to do with the food, I think it makes for a more compelling show.
Sadly, all of this good... and there was a lot of it... was derailed by the bad:
- Inconsistent judges. And by this I don't mean inconsistent judgING, but inconsistent judgES. For the first two seasons, we had Tom and Gail. Then, to allow Gail to handle some other obligations, we went to Tom and Gail and an occasional alternate, who the elves tried to keep consistent across seasons (Ted Allen in seasons three and four, Toby Young in five and six). Then the alternate judge started changing every season. Now we're up to Tom, Gail, Padma, Hugh and Emeril. I'm of the opinion that the guest judges, when they're good guest judges and not gimmicky ones, provide the necessary fresh perspective. But just as it's good when a viewer establishes a connection with the contestants over the length of the season, so too is it when they establish a connection with the judges. But other than Tom and Padma, it's like musical chairs. I wish there were a little more consistency here.
- The challenges. I appreciated the effort to work in Texas-specific challenges. Unlike many, I actually appreciated the chili cookoff. But BBQ is just too specialized and too touchy, I think. And while I have no problem with well-designed catering challenges, this season seemed dominated by tests of endurance and challenges where the chefs were set up to fail. The result? The instances where we got a true look at the contestants' food were few and far between. Time and time again, it's been proven that watching the contestants survive isn't nearly as enjoyable as watching them thrive, but this season's challenges seemed designed to give us more of the former and less of the latter. And don't even get me started on the culinary olympics. Like Rome before the fall. Let's feed some Christians to the lions while we're at it. Yeah, that'll be exciting stuff. Ugh.
- Drama. Oy. Yeah, it's high pressure. Yeah, stuff happens. Of course we're going to see that, and some of it is interesting. But the bickering and sniping just gets tiresome. Really, really tiresome. And while they can't control whether or not it happens, the editors can certainly control how much of a focus it is. More food, less childish BS, please.
- The suspense edit. Speaking of the editors, this has become one of the worst aspects of the show. Please, elves... the occasional amount of suspense we might feel at the end of an episode is far, far less compelling than actually seeing the judges' true feelings about a dish. Listening to them doing backflips over Paul's soup would have been a whole lot more fun than wondering if he was going to win by a little or by a lot. Editing out the passion -- positive or negative -- is removing one of the most compelling aspects of the show, and for what? A cheap surprise? Maybe on occasion? Plus, it undermines the credibility of the show by making it clear that there's no attempt to honestly portray how the food is received. We can't taste, so we have to rely on the judges. But we're learning that we can't rely on the judges because their comments have been selectively edited into oblivion. So what the hell are we watching, exactly? It's a terrible, terrible tradeoff. Please stop this.
In general, I suspect it's an unfortunate matter of insecurity on the part of the elves. Top Chef has been around for a while now. Viewership isn't what it was at its apex. But now it seems as though they're just trying too hard, attempting to manufacture artificial excitement and drama rather than trusting in what made the show a success in the first place. This competition is compelling stuff! Seeing that food, seeing that passion, seeing the judges' reactions... THAT'S what makes this show compelling. Not sleep deprivation and childish bickering and manufactured suspense. That's why, for all of the good ideas to come out of this season, most of us here see it as unsatisfying. The spirit of the show is getting buried under a pile of crap.
Find your roots, elves. Go back to what made the show a success in the first place. Let that passion and energy and FOOD come through. Please.
Consider this post the final one for season nine, and home base for any off-season discussion. Though the fact that this is now its own blog means that I'll probably be less hesitant to post little updates here and there as news trickles out. Check back.
Thanks again to everybody for making this a fun place to discuss the show, even during a down season. I LOVE that some of you might actually be getting together as a result. Community, community, community. And I apologize for the fact that an unusually busy schedule has meant that I've been a little less hands-on than in some seasons past. Hopefully that'll be remedied next time around.
Until next season, all!