There they were: most of the episodes from season three of MasterChef Junior, piled up on my DVR. I realized tonight that I’ve been neglecting the show when I received Fox’s press release announcing the final two contestants and next week’s finale. When it debuted last year, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I’m a total fan. Yet I certainly have not been anxiously awaiting it like I have episodes of another delightful cooking competition, The Great British Baking Show.
Why do I not care about this season of MasterChef Junior, a show I actually really like?
A few obvious things stand out:
- Fatigue, since there were just three weeks between the two seasons, versus months between seasons one and two. Other shows that air two seasons a year typically have bigger gaps.
- Increasing annoyance at the MasterChef format, which is why I stopped watching the non-kid version. With just two challenges and only a few dishes being judged for the first challenge, it’s really a half-hour show disguised as an hour-long show. The judges’ pauses are so pregnant they could get their own TLC reality show.
- A little less playfulness and a little more standard Gordon Ramsay competition show bullshit–not to the same degree as Hell’s Kitchen, but still too much of a hint of manipulation for entertainment’s sake (e.g. “You three…are out…of the next challenge…because you’re safe”). I may have just not noticed this in the sea of cuteness during seasons one and two, but I definitely noticed it when three started.
That last bullet point needs a lot more explanation. It’s something I almost wrote about last season but couldn’t quite figure out how to say without coming off like a total jerk, which will probably happen right now.
When I watched the first couple episodes of season three, it felt like these new kids were facsimiles of the ones I’d grown to love last season (Oona! Abby! Sean!). That’s unfair to the kids, of course, but also the result of casting. The show is cast with a fairly rigid formula, each season filling the same archetype slots.
What I couldn’t write in December was that I was annoyed that another older, wiser-than-his-years kid had dominated the competition. He actually didn’t win, but came in second and easily could have won. It is not his fault nor any of the kids’ fault; they are kids cast for a reality show because they are incredibly talented and have terrific personalities. They could probably beat me at any kind of competition, not just cooking.
When I mentioned not watching this season on Twitter, this came up in a brief exchange I had with NPR’s Linda Holmes, who really hit the core problem here:
“It’s a lovely show that so far only knows one story.”
Yes. And now, looking at the results of tonight’s episode, it’s distressing to see that the story is continuing, and yet another boy is going to win (three seasons, three male winners). Unsurprisingly, the one who seemed just like last season’s dominant older male contestant is one of the final two.
Why do these three older male judges keep picking the same type of older male kid? It’s a mystery–and one that I can’t fairly evaluate past commenting on external characteristics, since I haven’t watched these last few episodes. (Update: I’ve since come across this Atlantic essay by Caroline Framke, which compellingly argues that “MasterChef Junior bills itself as an inclusive show that encourages creativity and hard work, but it can still be a microcosm of the same old exhausting gender and race biases ingrained in daily life.”)
Let’s assume the best: the judges have always picked the most talented kid chefs to make it far in the competition. Is it any surprise, though, that older kids have done well? The final two have been ages 11 to 13 all three seasons so far. A 12-year-old has lived 50 percent longer than an eight-year-old contestants, so it’s no surprise they’re better.
It’s also no surprise that predictability is not good for competition series. MasterChef Junior had open casting calls for its fourth season late last year. I hope that it has found kids who are not only talented but surprise us in the same way the season one cast did: by being different than what we’re used to.