Many things tend to get in the way. Some are annoying; The woman with impossibly large hair choosing to sit in front of you in the cinema when there are about a million other seats available. The popup window reminding you that The Times now charges for its online content. The nitwit sauntering slowly in front of you on the pavement with headphones blaring because his life is, like, totally meaningless without an everlasting soundtrack, yeah? The ticket barrier that doesn’t open immediately even when you know you put twenty pounds on your Oyster card yesterday and slapped it on the sensor with the firm certainty of a dominatrix giving her gimp a good lashing. The coin some atavistic moron has jammed the vending machine with so you can’t get at the mini-digestives without which your essay is surely doomed. Some are less annoying. A final goodbye that means you’ll probably miss the last tube. An air bag that gets in the way of your face and the steering wheel. Television probably occupies some middle ground between these.
I was supposed to do several things this week. I was supposed to finish some work on the Aristotelian notions of friendship (something to do with beards and buggery if I recall correctly), return a library book quietly decomposing on my shelf and order some more tea. Two programmes slowed my progress. The first was The Crimson Petal And The White, which I was fully intending to review until the memory of Chris O’Dowd shoving his saliva lubricated hand up a prostitute made me cry. The other was Masterchef. The quandary of which to focus on remained until I almost cannoned into John Torode in Smithfield market. I took this as a sign. Mastication triumphed over masturbation if you will, but I rather wish you wouldn’t.
Things seem to have changed since the last series. It used to be a viable and entertaining way of identifying fantastic culinary talent. Now though, shiny suited numpties with pocket lint for brains have given the show what I like to call the O Fortuna treatment. O fortuna is a piece of music you will most definitely have heard. It ought to kick off Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, but is better known as the tune blaring out whilst the X-Factor judges take their seats. It has been robbed of any gravitas or sincerity it once possessed. Sometimes its usage is funny. Mostly its not. The point being, it is used to hype things up to a level beyond what they ought to be. Like administering Sunny Delight intravenously to the child that has to sit apart from the others at school. The problem is pervasive: Athletes are now billed as heroes, Justin Bieber as a genius (I concede I love his music but the boy doesn’t know what “Germany” means for God’s sake) and Miliband invokes the anti-apartheid movement and women’s suffrage in a speech about budget cuts.
And now it infects Masterchef, the narrator of which already sounds like she needs tranquilising. Early rounds now come with longer quasi-dramatic pauses. More music is added to build tension that is utterly absent. This season, first round competitors cook with their families present, just to make the pain of failure even more acute. Or, if they are successful, the occasion is marked by ejaculatory fanfares and screams. Why? It’s the first round. You haven’t won the Nobel peace prize/married Natalia Vodianova/cured cancer/defeated a Sith Lord. Its good, but it isn’t worth this level of pomp.
And as the series progresses, we find that this madness has spread to the judges. Their faces are set in grim acknowledgement of the mountain the contestants have to climb. It’s Battle Royale. Cook well, or Torode will gut you whilst Wallace holds you down. They make judgements as emperors surveying gladiatorial combat. They hold LIVES in their hands. Well, no they don’t. That single parent will just buckle down and get on with it and I’m pretty sure that ex-stock broker’s going to be just fine.
And how do I know this? Because now, instead of waiting until the final to show us the lives of the contestants (by which time we might actually care if he’s teaching crippled children yoga, or that she had her first foie gras in a charming gastro in the South Downs) we are presented with these vapid vignettes straight from the off. It doesn’t evoke sympathy. Nor do the contestants’ reactions on hearing they didn’t make it. “I tried my best but it wasn’t enough. I’m going to stick my head in the oven, gas mark three, shave to serve.” Oh, don’t do that, who on earth will care for the children or take over that greeting-card business? Please.
Thankfully, for the most part, Torode and Wallace rise above these problems. They are knowledgeable and fair critics. All of this isn’t really their fault. Blame lies with whichever executive decided that the worst of reality TV should vomit all over their show. To watch their relationship blossom as the programme continues is a delight. There is some excellent banter, but we are in no doubt that Torode wears the trousers. When Wallace makes something else of the pear and chocolate torte, Torode flicks him a glance that says, “Just wait till I get you home…” It is also wonderful to have a tour of some of London’s finest restaurants, to see how they are run and to feel all smug when they go to one in which you have eaten. It is still a rigorous and demanding competition. And as ever, when either Roux Sr. or Jr. shows up, one is either lost in their eyes or their artistry.
Masterchef has been made too rich, but somehow we can just about manage another helping.
Masterchef continues Wednesdays at 9 pm on BBC 1.