Top Chef: terrific winner; terrible, suspense-free finale; weak season

Top Chef Seattle became a bizarre combination of Hell’s Kitchen, Iron Chef, and American Idol for its finale, concluding its “back to basics” season by crowning its second female winner after a misguided, suspense-free live competition.

First, I’m thrilled Kristen Kish won, defeating Brooke Williamson, although Brooke would have been a deserving winner, too. Kristen seemed competent and talented throughout the season, and has been nothing but gracious even when less diplomatic reactions would have been easily justified–especially after she was eliminated in a bullshit, credibility-destroying decision.

After that, Kristen was kept around and eventually re-entered the competition in what seemed like even more bullshit than her initial elimination. At the very least, the episode of Last Chance Kitchen during which she defeated CJ and broke his streak was edited poorly, because it seemed like CJ should have won. And while I trust Tom Colicchio to judge fairly and impartially, I am not sure even he is capable of truly blind evaluation, especially after being partially responsible for prematurely sending Kristen out of the competition.

The finale was filmed in an arena reminiscent of The Taste and Iron Chef, with a bit of Hell’s Kitchen thrown in, as diners and family members sat, watched, and made bland comments after tasting the food that was served in head-to-head battles.

Yet there was virtually no suspense. About 50 minutes into the hour, Kristen was up two rounds to one, and the show went into an act break with a supposed cliffhanger. Of course Kristen would win: there was no time left for a fifth and final round had Brooke won the fourth.

As a Magical Elves production, the show is usually technically flawless, but from Padma’s awkwardly modulated voice-overs to the obnoxious studio audience noise and cutaways, it was far from the watchable kind of episode I expect from the show. And let’s not even discuss the time-wasting clip packages.

I admire Top Chef‘s producers and Bravo for trying something new with the finale, and the five-round face-off is not a terrible idea, though, as I mentioned above, voting along the way destroyed the suspense. However, the stadium setting, studio audience, and frenetic editing did not work. Even Tom Colicchio didn’t like the format, and said it will probably not return.

As to the rest of the season, the episodes in Alaska, including the episode filmed onboard product placement, was inspired and really refreshing, and there were other high points. And I liked the “casting” at the start, testing the chefs in each of the judges’ kitchens. But too much of the season felt familiar, not the promised “back to basics” that would hopefully have pulled it out of the rut it has been in since the all-star season.

From the bad decision to have returnees judge a challenge and then enter the competition (!) to the bad decision to have the finale be live, Top Chef just did not live up to its well-established reputation of being one of the top cable competition series.

Top Chef Seattle: B

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.