Top Chef: Martha and mediocrity edition
Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer….except, it’s obvious last night’s episode of Top Chef was filmed over the summer. This isn’t really a problem in and of itself, but the whole logic behind this time-warping seems to go against the idea that this is “reality” television. I’m not saying reality TV has ethics, but TC has proved itself to be among the best the genre has to offer if only because most of the time, its drama feels surprisingly unscripted. So why squander that reputation by essentially making all the contestants and judges “act” as if it really were Christmas? It’s disingenuous, and makes me have some doubts about what else was scripted or planned on last night’s episode. Did the producers come in the middle of the night and open the refrigerator to add drama? My gut says yes. And who made the decision at the end of the show? Am I just naïve to have never considered all this before? Well, that may be true, but still, this most recent episode brought all my doubts to the forefront.
We begin in the Top Chef house, where the cameras spend significantly less than time than usual. Instead of kissy-kissy, we get a heartbreaking scene of Hosea calling home. He talks about how his father was just diagnosed with cancer, and then, as if reminding us that his personal life has just become not only fodder for entertainment but also a cog in the machine that is consumerism, the only thing we see on the screen while he calls his sister is a close-up of the T-Mobile Sidekick, who obviously bought some serious product-placement time. It’s always good to start out an episode of Top Chef feeling nauseated with the world.
But all of this is okay because, as we are reminded every five seconds, it’s Christmas! And Martha Stewart will make everything better, right? The woman is amazing. Sure, she’s shilling for her new book, but she also drops one-liners like “Oh, yes, how I do enjoy diving for scallops in January,” and “Of course I scavenge for chanterelles each autumn.” She’s the real thing, and I trust her. Do I think she and her army of servants cook “one-pot meals quite a bit”? Not so much. But if all these very disparate judges are all seeing really good things in Ariane’s cooking, the lady must be doing something right. That’s right, Ariane won again, with a cauliflower puree and piece of meat. Meanwhile, on the bottom: Euguene and his cornstarchtastic stew (yick), Jeff’s “pungent” poTaTo risoTTo (that’s a transliteration of how Martha speaks, if you didn’t catch on) and Fabio’s polenta. The most interesting thing about this segment (besides Martha Stewart as specimen) was the budding friendship between Ariane and Jamie, which totally came out of left field.
Or shall I say… [giant fucking spoiler alert!] lack of elimination? What’s the point of weighing the merits of each dish, saying how pretty much they all sucked, and then not sending a single person home? The not-sending-anyone-home trick is kind of genius toward the end of the season when there are only a handful of contestants left and they all want to strangle each other, but here it just felt like a mean trick that someone played on Tom Colicchio. Like, hey, Tom, the more you whine about how all these chefs are terrible and you have no idea how they got on the show, the longer we’re going to keep them around to torture you.
The cooking really isn’t working out though, is it? On this episode (if you still care now that you know that no one got sent home), the contestants had to cook for a 250-person fundraiser for an AIDS foundation. The theme was 12 Days of Christmas, and each cheftestant was assigned one of those days. Jamie will not lay off the scallops, Stefan bitches about how it takes soooo long to open packages of chicken, and I’ve pretty much completely lost my faith in Eugene. There was some kind of refrigerator malfunction that caused Radhika to whine a lot, but then everyone helped her, including Stefan, “in order to win more fairly.” No one made anything particularly mind-blowing, and someone figured, hey, since we don’t really know WTF is going on here, let’s just get a celebrity on. Natasha Richardson shows up, and then so does Melissa Bernstein, who is not so much celebrity as chef, so that is good, and Melissa’s pretty tough, too. But by and large everyone agrees that everything sucked, and a certain degree of Top Chef melancholy has set in among the judges. It’s going to take some serious maneuvering to turn their seasonal-affective disorder upside-down. Like, maybe, a summer episode?