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MasterChef leaves a bitter aftertaste

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Paul Sheehan

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Dalai Lama drops in to MasterChef

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a guest judge on MasterChef.

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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.

<em>Illustration: Andrew Wolf.</em>

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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139 comments

  • The beginning of the end? For many of us the end arrived quite early on in this series.
    A show entitled MasterChef should be about cooking. This isn't. This series hasn't been about cooking, ingredients and the craft of food.
    It's been about manipulation (of the contestants and the audience), ridiculous accompanying music, woefully inadequate contestants (who are kept on to appeal to audience sectors and who can't cook well enough), bizarre time limited challenges and the weekly introduction of more and more international and local chefs to sell their books, aprons, and restaurants.
    Can this show have already jumped the shark inside three years? Yes, it's lost its mojo.

    Commenter
    David at Wahroonga
    Date and time
    July 18, 2011, 7:18AM
    • Well, if the author really had an issue with the show, maybe they should stop watching it in protest?

      i dont watch the show, because i find the idea of exploiting people horrible; The same can be said for any 'reality' TV.

      The worst part is most of them will never realise.

      Commenter
      Chris GG
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      July 18, 2011, 7:19AM
      • I think Masterchef has already lost the magic. Too much product placement, too many 'suprises' and not enough cooking. The show is lacking believable personalities and the producers have edited the contestants into cariacatures. My Kitchen Rules I think was the better program - at least that included more cooking. Masterchef just seems so cynical now - not a moment is spared to spruik some product. They lost me at Junior Masterchef - which like beauty pageants for 6 years old I thought was just wrong.

        Commenter
        James
        Location
        Redfern
        Date and time
        July 18, 2011, 7:33AM
        • All this about a TV show? Why do you watch it? It's as awful as its values. It's exploitative and its extreme commercialism is ugly. The judges look and sound like a bunch of spivs who would not be out of place in Tony Sprano's gang. But they couldn't get away with it without viewers who think all this is fine, much like the readers of the News of the World who had no problem happily (and knowingly) consuming the output of illegal & immoral hacking.

          Commenter
          Matt
          Location
          Neutral Bay
          Date and time
          July 18, 2011, 7:38AM
          • "Do you take Westpac?"

            This show has jumped the shark.

            Commenter
            The Fonz
            Date and time
            July 18, 2011, 7:39AM
            • You've forgotten to mention that the show loses integrity when it is blindingly obvious that there is favoritism occurring. The production team obviously believe Hayden and Dani would make a brilliant ratings pairing for the final. Because they seem to fall on their feet (think the first NY challenge - Dani's only edible element was a drink mix, at least Sun made an edible cake) and get multiple opportunities for immunity (Michael's dish was far more technical and impressive last night).
              Funnily, my FB friends desperately hate Dani. It's not just the crying, or the stupid laugh. She's so.... meme. All the time. Me. Me. Me. Me. What, I'm not in this challenge? How can I make my monologue all about... me? Ergh.
              Go Billy.

              Commenter
              Lexi
              Date and time
              July 18, 2011, 7:44AM
              • Why Dani and Elie are still on the show is beyond me. Perhaps it is because they look good on camera.

                Commenter
                Ed
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                July 18, 2011, 7:45AM
                • I haven't watched the programme for a couple of years, but when I did as a captive on holidays (nowhere to go but bed which was a mattress on the floor) I thought it was a fine example of sickening melodramatic bathos. I could say more critical things abbout it, buy I don't want to be unkind.

                  Commenter
                  David Morrison
                  Location
                  Blue Mountains
                  Date and time
                  July 18, 2011, 7:48AM
                  • Couldn't agree with your piece more. The balance in the show has become uncomfortably distorted by its rampant commercial success and the thread of decency that has separated MC to date from other reality shows (that have inevitably faded to black) is becoming ever thinner. I've watched nearly every show this series but the production values, or the progressive dimunition of them, are now attracting more comment than the merits of the competition. The distortion between the success of the show and the way contestants are tossed back to pick up lives that have been put on hold or careers effectively ended is palpable. Good to see some the contestants from previous series given a boost with re-appearances but going back to a desk job and a food blog at night draws a heavy contrast.

                    Commenter
                    Macca Ron
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    July 18, 2011, 7:52AM
                    • The show is becoming more cringing and awful with each episode.
                      Last night's episode with the Dali Lama was an embarrassment.
                      Why a global figure of the Dali's stature woould reduce himself to that awful cameo. The vision of a man of religion, surrounded by minders would put himself in the spotlight with the flabby mouthed Preston et al, and the seemingly vacuuous Kwong defies rational thinking.
                      The Masterchef juggernaught rolls on and is seemingly indifferent to the impact on its contestants, as long as it makes headlines.
                      Wake up viewers, we're all being conned by a machine which is doing as much for food, nutrition and gastronomy as Typhoid Mary did for health and hygiene.
                      And for heavens sake, someone put Dani out to pasture. SHe has run her alphabet of emotions from A-B and the public is ove it.... and she really can't cook

                      Commenter
                      spun out
                      Location
                      sydney
                      Date and time
                      July 18, 2011, 8:00AM

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