Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Welcome Back, John & Gregg

It’s time to tackle one of the big global issues. The world cannot go on like this. Someone, somewhere, needs to impose a change.

That’s right – auditioning contestants on reality television.

The new series of Masterchef, which started last night, is making tentative steps toward mimicking its Australian counterpart. For the audition stage, this involves potential contestants being judged individually while friends and relatives wait on the other side of the studio wall to react to the subsequent joy/disappointment. Although perfectly tolerable when just one person shares the experience, producers really need to clamp down on entire families being dragged along for the day. At worst, the contestant appears exceptionally needy and, where Masterchef is concerned, suggests they might not cope too well when “the competition really hots up” later in the series.

Many UK viewers are complaining that the alterations to the format make the show resemble The X-Factor, but if that were true then ‘new’ Masterchef would be as unwatchable as one of those ITV talent shows: auditions dragged out for six weeks around the country, a live audience booing and cheering every decision, irrelevant interviews with failed contestants, and a focus on deluded individuals with no discernible talent but who make the miserable people watching at home feel better about themselves.

None of that happened last night; the auditionees were recognisably Masterchef, and that is what matters. The Australian version has been a big success, and after six series you can’t blame the producers for trying to freshen up the UK original a little. Considering things logically, the new format is not all that different in content from what has gone before. What difference there is, mainly in style, is arguably for the better.

Whilst they have perhaps come to the fore in recent years, the show has always featured the introspective musings of the contestants; having a guy’s wife saying how much a career in food would mean to him is therefore no more objectionable than hearing the guy himself say it. The only appreciable loss is the comedy of someone confidently stating their desire to open a Michelin star restaurant before failing spectacularly at the first stage.

Furthermore, selecting the final group of contestants over the course of two programmes will, hopefully, allow the show to focus on what it does best for the remainder of the series. An individual audition in front of the judges pretty much combines everything that the initial stages of the original format used to test, and that structure was capable of occasional frustrations – a good group of contestants might lose someone who seemed deserving, only to be followed by a motley bunch where nobody shined but one or two had to go through anyway. Now, we essentially get ten weeks and thirteen programmes of finals!

The final point comes with the caveat of whether television presents us with situations that are entirely genuine. If, for example, the moment when John appeared to feel bad for sending a woman home was real, then it is interesting to have that sort of insight into the judging process. Similarly, Gregg seemed particularly hard to please at times. Is that because those cosy, heavily-edited, sofa-based chats usually excluded the more forceful opinions, or is it a deliberate move to serve the four-way cook-off at the end? Ultimately, it may not matter given that auditions finish tonight, but the intrigue of what lies in store from next week remains.

Whatever the truth, for me Masterchef shines brightest when the judges have freedom to interact with the contestants and, for now at least, there is scope for more of that than before. Even during the first episode of a wholly different format, the show made me smile and laugh like Masterchef always does. If changes produce the odd cringe-worthy moment then so be it – there is every reason to believe the heights it can reach will be that much greater.

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