It’s sporting season on our television set.
Every evening, The Wife and I get together to watch young unknowns from diverse backgrounds and nationalities compete frantically with established superstars of the game, rubbing shoulders with performers they have long admired in the hopes of writing their own legends. Or at least that’s what it says on the tin. The latest season of MasterChef Australia (Disney+ Hotstar), titled Fans Vs Favourites, is packaged as a battle between underdogs and experienced hands but the actual reason these familiar faces are being brought back is that the show needs stars—and doesn’t have its own.
MasterChef Australia, you see, isn’t what it used to be. Loyalists miss the original judges, Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, who hosted the series till 2019. They had distinctive personalities and roles, while their affable bickering made the series feel like the Top Gear of food. Current hosts Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and (returning contestant) Andy Allen are rarely insightful, or clever. At best, they seem nice. Their first season (titled Back To Win) featured former contestants—a smart move to ease the hosting transition—but now here we are again, with cooks we already like asked to do the heavy lifting once more.
Cricket isn’t what it used to be either—and that’s an understatement. The ongoing Indian Premier League, or IPL (with matches nightly on Disney+ Hotstar), presents such a suffocating overdose of the game that it has become hard to tell teams apart, and those of us who casually tune in for an over or two end up looking around for familiar superstars in order to get our bearings. Of course talented young guns keep breaking speed limits and whacking enormously quick fifties, but who can keep up with flavours-of-the-week when the weeks never end?
Therefore, just as the IPL needs Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kane Williamson, sterling heroes who carved their legacies in Test cricket, MasterChef Australia needs Sashi Cheliah of season 10 and Billie McKay of season 7. Basically, audiences demand champions who won their battles when the battles mattered more. MasterChef Australia was a tougher playground when judges debated the finer points of negative space in a plated dish than now, when presentation appears to matter little so long as the food is what the judges call “more-ish”.
And yet—as evidenced by those of you irritated by, but keeping abreast of, the cricket—we watch, nevertheless. We do this because there is something wondrous about seeing people shine. Seeing them pull their socks up and do something unexpected and unfathomable. It’s something we could never conceivably do, be it a dill oil or a Dil-scoop, but something we can gladly applaud.
Perhaps more compellingly in terms of spectator sport, it gives us something to complain about. Unable to taste the food served up on screen, we choose not to take the judges’ word, railing against their pronouncements much as we do against DRS decisions that don’t go our way. “How dare they choose not to punish a raw dumpling but go after a ‘mildly’ burnt fish curry?” we rage. “The decisions are arbitrary,” we decide, arbitrarily.
This, of course, is exactly what they want. MasterChef Australia has always lived far from the hyper-aggressive playbook favoured by American reality shows, but despite its sunny optimism, it needs characters for us to cheer and boo. In a series like MasterChef, it’s easy to find inspiring narrative storylines—I could listen to the frequently overwhelmed Aldo Ortado and his House Of Gucci accent all week—but harder to establish villains. The show is too wholesome to portray characters in bad light, so it’s easier to have judges making bad calls.
The MasterChef Australia trio has, therefore, dialled up the exasperating judgements. They have blatantly been siding with the Fans over the Favourites, in the (correct) hope that viewers—who already support some Favourites—will feel hard done by, and their outrage will keep them glued. Every evening The Wife and I complain about the decisions made on screen, and the only bits of this sentence that matter are its first two words.
Despite our whinging, new favourites are certainly emerging. Former barista Harry Tomlinson is one of the most complete cooks the kitchen has seen, graphic designer Ali Stoner is stepping into the show’s all-important (especially for television) role of conceptual creator, and giggly firefighter Daniel Lamble is, well, too giggly to forget. (Over on the cricket field, I would like to see the Rajasthan Royals win, primarily as a tribute to that great Australian we lost this year, the man who led them to the IPL’s first trophy: Shane Warne.)
A commentating cliché used to describe close games goes, “In the end, cricket’s the real winner”, and these days, with both the IPL and MasterChef Australia on the same network, no matter what we choose, Disney+ Hotstar is the real winner. The (mouse) house always wins.
It is admittedly hard to watch our champions fizzle. There’s Billie, making a confit duck destined not to win immunity. There’s Virat Kohli, leading a procession of them. The most poignant bit of MasterChef Australia has been watching Julie Goodwin, who won the very first season of the series, returning to the MasterChef kitchen—and struggling. She’s often stunned by the complexity and ambition of challenges and challengers, but she continues to take them on, squaring her jaw and raising her chin. Can true champions win even when they aren’t winning? Yes, chef.