Two million Australian viewers are addicted to MasterChef Australia. Another 4 million watch from time to time. I am one of the addicted. I'm drawn to the show's production values, which are brilliant, far better than the English original. But this brilliance does not blind me to the dark side of MasterChef - the gratuitous stress, the burning, cutting, sobbing, panicking and general exploitation.
The people responsible for the underlying cynicism of MasterChef need to be named. They are harvesting wealth while the contestants, who suffer all the indignities, make peanuts. We'll get to those who must bear responsibility for the questionable morality that creates the tension that drives the ratings.
And what ratings. In a highly segmented media age, MasterChef Australia has averaged 2 million viewers a night, five nights a week, for the past 11 weeks. There is also a sixth show on Fridays where no one gets hurt and the ratings are thus lower. Last year, 5.74 million viewers tuned in to watch the season finale.
Illustration: Andrew Wolf.
The producers have created a tightly crafted, fast-paced product, the work of an unseen battalion of 140 production crew. But as the judges are so fond of telling the contestants, with the good comes the bad.
The contestants are all volunteers who have signed legal waivers. The price for fame and adventure is that they must put their lives on hold. One contestant, Matt Beyer, was booted for using a mobile phone to contact his girlfriend. Communication with the outside world is verboten, except under strict supervision. The contestants are sequestered in Sydney for weeks, and for the finalists this becomes months.
While the contestants have emerged as honest and honourable, the same cannot entirely be said for the producers. They constantly divide and conquer in ways more harsh than strictly necessary.
Not content with advertising, MasterChef is awash with product placement. It also presents itself as a meritocracy but the gruelling process of elimination is riddled with inconsistencies.
What drives the show's drama is the certainty that the contestants, one by one, will have to walk the plank. The most glaring problem has been MasterChef's contempt for the concept of honour. In the early weeks of this season, until the error became too obvious, the people in greatest danger of elimination were those who volunteered as team captains.
Superior contestants were eliminated while obvious duds were able to hang on for weeks. A poignant moment came when a contestant, Adam Bowen, gave up his place, saying he did not want to take away another person's dream. Other contestants have done the decent thing and nominated themselves for elimination contests and been duly eliminated.
These are the heartfelt dramas that MasterChef provides, based on the dignity of the contestants and the indignities they must endure. These indignities are being piled on as the producers seek to maintain tension and novelty with ever more demanding challenges. MasterChef Australia has become manic.
Contestants are never given enough time to do justice to the extravagant demands made on them. The pace is hyperkinetic, with the cameras leering in to capture the blood, sweat and tears.
One of the most vibrant contestants, Dani Venn, 25, has been reduced to tears on multiple occasions. Last week, competing in New York, she was scalded by boiling oil and had to compete with one hand bandaged. Another contestant, Ellie Paxton-Hall, 24, received medical attention for a cut hand and then had to cook on during another pressure test in New York. Most of the contestants have had bandaged fingers or hands.
New York was also the scene of unnecessary cruelty. Having given the eight remaining contestants the euphoria of a surprise week in New York, the two who failed pressure tests were told to spend the rest of the week in ''lockdown'', unable to leave their hotels. The producers and judges should hang their heads in shame.
This third series got off to a shaky ethical start. The first person eliminated was Tom Rutledge after he volunteered to be a team captain in the first team challenge. His cooking and leadership were strong but his team lost because another contestant, Kumar Pereira, 62, made a critical mistake. Tom selflessly volunteered himself into an elimination challenge. Kumar, a decent man, also volunteered himself. One deserved to be there, the other clearly did not. Again, Tom presented well in the subsequent challenge, but became the forgotten man, the first to be voted off the show, when a guest judge cast the deciding vote.
The people ultimately responsible for all this are the senior production executives and the three main judges: Gary Mehigan, a Melbourne chef, and the key presence in the entire series; George Calombaris, another Melbourne chef, the clown of the series; and Matt Preston, a food writer whose looming, over-ripe presence is one of the signatures of the show.
This trio is making hay from product endorsements, salaries and promotions, with the chefs minting publicity for their restaurants.
The production company is Fremantle Media, where the director of programming is Tim Clucas. The senior production manager of MasterChef Australia is Mandy Roberts. The MasterChef series director is Richard Smead. The executive producer at Network Ten is Rick Maier.
These four senior executives and the three main judges might want to refine the ethical aspects of this enterprise, because the contestants are looking more honourable than the people running the show.
If the fourth series continues the pattern, and becomes even more frenetic, the excessive pressure on the contestants could be the beginning of the end of the MasterChef magic.
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