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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Viewers are the missing ingredient

 The fourth season of Channel Ten's once-dominant reality cooking show hasn't heard a lot of "boom, boom, shake the room" this year. If you were to go by the ratings figures, perhaps "no, no, sunk the show" might be apt. The idea that our society is entering a new age of austerity, where we're all shedding extravagances, is well known, but did MasterChef really have to join in by losing 500,000 viewers?

When the series made its debut in 2009 it was a phenomenon that introduced the strip programming format - MasterChef was on six nights a week and on the seventh day even God talked about Julie's nervy triumphs and Poh's culinary verve. But now, an early Sunday night has gone from once drawing approximately 1.8 million viewers in capital cities to 1.3 million in 2012, and it's now lagging well behind The Block.
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This new season began a month ago with a media pledge from the central trio - chefs Calombaris and Gary Mehigan, along with food critic Matt Preston - that the show was getting back to basics. In other words, chocolate cake is in, and the Dalai Lama and molecular cooking are out.

It always warms the heart when a television show misfires and the on-air talent promise to right the course. It's brave of them to step forward and assert themselves, especially since they were previously figureheads who had absolutely nothing to do with the production's guiding philosophy and decisions. Obviously you can only get so much foie gras out of stuffing that golden goose.

The format hasn't changed, but this season of MasterChef is very touchy-feely. Calombaris has given out the odd "man hug" and one contestant got a "Maggie hug" from guest Maggie Beer, an author and chef whose enthusiasm and approachability exemplifies the show's new outlook. Instead of emphasising the MasterChef "journey", they're now delving into the amateur cooks' lives for thematic traction.

"What kind of man are you looking for, Kylie?" Calombaris asked a single contestant on Sunday night, which for a moment made me wonder if Ten had decided to reboot Perfect Match (so many options for the Dexter the Robot role). We're seeing more flashbacks and family photos, and the unspoken change is that MasterChef can add to your life, instead of remaking it. The grandiloquent self-obsession has been dialled down.

In these circumstances Preston is an invaluable presence. His ability to articulate food's numerous connections to our lives is the show's new credo. And while there's still a tendency to feature interview grabs from the hopefuls that state the obvious - we already know that losing an elimination challenge will get you eliminated - there's been a welcome, matter-of-fact quality to scenes such as Amina, who is Muslim, having to work with pork.

It also appears that the soundtrack has been set to the "thriller" genre, while the average age of the contestants could be a touch younger than usual, but these are minor amendments. "I'd love to say something positive, but this is MasterChef ... we want more," Mehigan told one entrant who'd fallen short with a dish, but optimism still reigns supreme. Criticism comes via brief asides - a reference to "food court"-quality food was sharp - and quizzical reaction shots; Preston and Mehigan do the best eyebrow work on Australian TV.

The contestants appear to be uniformly good-natured and supportive of each other. There are no villains, and the show works off good intentions that unfortunately go bad. When Julia, a legal secretary who doesn't quite comprehend how she comes across, noted, "I find it very hard not to be good at things," you could sense the scene being marked down for revisiting in the future when she does find it too hard. Even Sydney chef Matt Moran, a quasi-fourth judge and the possessor of a demanding persona never entirely softened for television, has been downgraded.

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