Everything is relative. One million people watched the finale of MasterChef Australia this year, which sounds like a lot of people - and it is, if the show is Hot Dogs' Up Late Game Show or Yasmin's Getting Married. But for the one-time juggernaut that is MasterChef, it's a near-humiliating fall from grace to find the biggest episode of the season achieving merely good ''quirky relationship drama'' ratings, rather than the ''forcing the federal leaders' debate to move timeslots'' numbers it once managed.
Has Australia simply fallen out of love with MasterChef? The program is returning in 2014, so the divorce isn't quite final, but there's no doubt we've been spending a lot of time apart, speaking coldly to each other and eating dinner in stony silence across from each other. The spice has gone out of our relationship with MasterChef, and we need to face those facts. Perhaps it's just that the show itself has gone stale, or perhaps our heads have been turned by younger, sexier reality ingenues such as My Kitchen Rules and The Voice. MasterChef, after all, has no celebrities in spinning chairs, or viciously passive-aggressive dinner parties. Maybe there's just no room in today's cruel, hard-nosed world for a gentle giant like MasterChef.
But let's not give up hope: the producers are promising things will be different next year, as they make one brave stab at resurrecting the ailing colossus. Unfortunately, I hear rumours they will be doing this by ''going back to basics'', which is always a clanging chime of doom for a television format. They think that ''back to basics'' means focusing on the food, emphasising excellent cooking, having a few million fewer hours showing people driving around the countryside and riding scooters through the streets. Which all sounds very good, but in practice ''back to basics'' just means returning to the stuff we got bored with ages ago.
The reason they moved away from basics is because they know people have short attention spans and are easily distracted by shiny things. And the first season of MasterChef is so far back in the dim past that returning to that way of doing things will just seem like a weird new tangent with lots of inexplicable close-ups of carrots.
No, there is a way to restore MasterChef but it's not ''back to basics''. It's ''away from basics''. First of all, focus less on food: the most boring part of any episode is the bit with the cooking, so cut that down: no more contestants explaining what they're doing - nobody cares. The second-most boring part is people talking about their families, so no more of that. Each amateur cook should be a shadowy, mysterious figure, referring to their pasts only through oblique phrases such as ''before the unpleasantness'', or ''back when I was whole''.
Third, more danger. It is always great when the possibility of death or maiming enters the kitchen: we need more fires, more body parts cut off by errant knives, and hopefully more body contact.
Fourth, the show needs sexing up: the producers must encourage saucy affairs and illicit intimacy between as many contestants as possible. And finally, the judges should be drunk, all the time.
Heed my warning, MasterChef: this shipwreck is salvageable, but you're going to have to think outside the mystery box.