It's impossible to verify, but surely someone at Network Seven practises black magic? How else can you explain a reality show contestant as good – and by good I mean compulsively infuriating and cringingly bereft of self-awareness – as Zana Pali turning up on the first week of My Kitchen Rules. You'd have to gift your soul to Beelzebub to get such an incendiary contestant, or at least sacrifice a Home and Away starlet.
As good as the format for the first half of each My Kitchen Rules season is, with the judged dinner parties putting both culinary skills and social perspective under the spotlight, the seventh year of MKR appeared to be operating on autopilot. The ratings behemoth had the usual two-week promotional barrage (a.k.a. the Australian Open tennis tournament), and then our national obsession with overcooked meat and underdeveloped souls was launched.
My Kitchen Rules: meet Zana and Gianni
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My Kitchen Rules: meet Zana and Gianni
Unafraid of airing unpopular opinions, Zana is backed up in the kitchen by her husband Gianni. MKR airs Sundays 7pm and Mon-Wed 7:30pm on Channel Seven.
But it took Zana, partnered with her husband and fellow Melbourne lawyer Gianni Romano, a mere four minutes to announce herself. "Failure is not an option," she declared, a line best left to bomb disposal experts, and from there it was just a gym workout montage to pointing out that the winner's prize money of $250,000 "isn't a lot of money for us." Before she'd even turned her nose up at the first dish she was the villain incarnate.
Zana has a forthright manner – "I'll admit when I'm wrong," she noted, "but it's very rare" – and a fabulously awkward set of improvised facial expressions that manage to signify both disdain and surprise at the perceived failings of her fellow amateur cooks. She's made for internet memes and online GIFs, a self-replicating set of links, which makes her perfect for the immersive narratives reality shows are now trying to fashion.
The Romano's had only been present in two episodes, with their own cooking kept back to heighten expectations and ratings, when Seven had them on Sunrise. Crossing to them live in Brisbane could be construed as an indication they're still competing in the series, and their awkward answers suggested they may have been surprised at what they'd given the show's editors.
"We have a much bigger purpose," pledged Gianni, trying to explain the prize money reference, but short of being Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 truthers or ardent scientologists, the couple couldn't offer MKR's producers more. They're spark plugs for our society's outrage culture, a car crash that will infuriate as many as they make laugh. They're the crux of reality television – you can't fake someone who will only eat lettuce if each leaf has been individually hand washed.
The three-course meals they helped judge were all over the place, and there were moments in the third episode where you could see judge Pete Evans, a paleo diet advocate, forcing himself to mentally picture his no doubt sizeable contract so he could go through with putting disastrous dishes in his mouth. "Was it pleasant to eat?" he told Brisbane "cougar and cub" Cheryl Harris and Matt Newman. "Not really."
Thanks to the beauty of reality TV editing, the self-proclaimed upwardly mobile couple were set up to leave a bad taste in the mouths of every guest and viewer when the time came for their instant restaurant opportunity on Tuesday. Instead their beetroot hummus, crumbled calf livers and krofne dessert scored a top score of 97, placing them at the top of the leaderboard.
“Our calf livers, we knew this was going to be a risk, but a human donor would’ve taken years to find” #MKR— Ben Pobjie (@benpobjie) February 9, 2016
It was noticeable in the first week of episode alone how the focus is now on Evans' fellow MKR judge Manu Feildel. It's Feildel who trumps Evans when contradictory verdicts are to be delivered, and Feildel who has Sydney police officers Monique Fitzgerald and Sarah Moore whooping and gasping for air with his mere presence, before they admitted to the occasional sexual fantasy about the Frenchman. By that point it probably wasn't necessary to use Kings of Leon's Sex on Fire as the background music.
MKR, which prominently featured entertainingly stroppy Irish chef Colin Fassnidge as a guest judge last year, may well be preparing for life without Evans, whose dietary opinions and activities outside the show have sometimes garnered controversy. All three episodes of the show's first week topped the ratings, each drawing over 1.5 million capital city viewers, suggesting that the series is formidable enough to endure some regime change.
Promotional slots are already broadly hinting that Nigella Lawson will also be visiting various Australian homes at some point to check that we're overdoing it with the butter and cream. Hopefully she'll dine with Zana and Gianni – although given how well MKR has used the couple already, it will almost certainly happen. My Kitchen Rules continues to masterfully make the most of every ingredient.