healthy competition?

I’ve noted before that I’m fond of the BBC Masterchef series in all its incarnations. My main reason is that I enjoy seeing people who are passionate about their hobby/profession demonstrating their skill, as well as watching their talent being nurtured over the course of the programme. Not all reality TV shows do that.

Often there are competitive elements within the show that are orchestrated to create conflict between the contestants for the entertainment of the viewer. This can mean that the best and most talented person does not win the show. I can’t bear watching the worst examples of this kind of reality TV show. They’re just heartless.

I’ve always felt that the structure of the BBC MasterChef series helps find the best chef. Of course, the Beeb uses music and editing to heighten the drama of the show so it’s not exactly faultless, but overall it comes across as an honest contest.

MasterChef AustraliaI’ve been ruminating upon this as I’ve been watching season two of MasterChef Australia, which is the Oz version of the popular BBC show. Once you notice that it’s produced by the FreemantleMedia Group you know what to expect – this is the company that produces shows like The Biggest Loser, The X-Factor, American Idol and America’s Got Talent.

I often refer to MasterChef Australia as Australia’s Next Top MasterChef, because of its mixture of formats: all the contestants live together in a house for months, there is a combination of challenges and tests, including ones that divide the group into teams, and they are encouraged to talk about ‘how they feel’ a great deal, especially after they have just been eliminated. I do enjoy the masterclasses, which are all about how to cook good and interesting food. Adding the ability for the amateur chefs to win immunity from one elimination by beating an established chef in a chef-off is fair because the task is so difficult. The contestants have to be extraordinary to win that advantage.

I also like the judges: restaurateur and chef Gary Mehigan, chef George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston because they are experts who love their industry, are funny, personable and helpful to the upcoming chefs.

Yet, as we arrive to the final four chefs I’ve noticed that at least two of the best people aren’t in that final group. There are two genuinely fine chefs in the final four, and two decent chefs. This is something that rarely happens in the BBC MasterChef. Of course, there is an element of luck involved – it only takes one bad dish to send you home, but two of the strongest chefs in the competition are not in the top four. That strikes me as odd.

One of the things the show does is give the chef with the best dish of the day an advantage in the following challenge. This kind of thing tilts the playing field.

In the most recent challenge one of the chefs was allowed to set the ingredients that would appear in the ‘mystery box’ challenge the next day. He had all night to prepare for it. When he talked about what elements he chose he stated that he was playing to his strengths, but he added that he was trying to be strategic and scupper some of the other chefs.

He adds, to excuse this, ‘it’s a competition’. He also said that he didn’t consider himself the best chef, so he hoped this strategy would help him stay in the competition longer.

I was dismayed by this attitude, even if it was understandable considering the parameters of the show.

Ultimately, I thought he should indeed have focused on assembling items that would demonstrate his technique and ability, but not concern himself with how the others might or might not deal with those ingredients. That was an unknown variable, and as much as he thought he knew how they would react, he actually didn’t know. Instead of focusing on his strengths he muddied the challenge by trying to anticipate something he couldn’t anticipate.

As it turned out he forced the other chefs into being more inventive which backfired on him – he was very nearly in the final two, and was warned not to waste an opportunity like that again.

One of the things I see a lot in competitions is how attitudes like this, or even rampant bad behaviour, is so often excused away with ‘but, it’s a competition.’ This is an attitude that is deeply rooted and taught early.

Personally, I think this is one of the most damaging ideas that is allowed in our society: that it is permissible (and often vaunted) to be as cutthroat as you like to win a goal.

Too often we focus on abstract notions that are impossible for us to know: what someone thinks about a subject or how they will react to a situation. We spend a lot of time strategising about how to deal with scenarios that really only exist in our mind.

It’s far better to focus on what we can control – our talents and what we do with them – rather than worrying about the other person. It’s not an easy switch to make however, and I’ve often struggled with this myself.

Nagano makes his goalIn fact, one of the best examples on television of a pure competition which is about finding the best athlete is the Japanese show Sasuke (Ninja Warrior).

What’s great about this show is not just the insane difficulty of the obstacle course the contestants have to navigate and overcome, but that all the athletes root for each other. There are a lot of ‘fun’ competitors too, and the English voice-over by Stuart Hall adds a whole other dimension to the event as well.

It’s fantastic to watch an event and recognise that the best man or woman responded brilliantly to the challenges and won against a very competitive field.

I’d like to think that talent usually wins out, but sadly that’s not always the case. It helps if the competition pitches itself to be as fair as possible to all contestants, however.

One Comment

  • Sam

    We were able to get Masterchef Australia for a while when our TV company was giving away free extra channels during November. I watched about 10 minutes of one show and turned it off. For me it was no better than Hell’s Kitchen and was an insult to the Masterchef principle. It wasn’t a competition so much as television, and therefore the contestants aren’t chosen as much for their cooking skills as they are for the conflict and drama they will provide. That’s not what Masterchef is all about, in my opinion.