I do not, as a rule, watch very much reality television. In fact, unless you count the second season of American Idol (I don’t, and CLAY AIKEN 4EVA), I have never actually become invested in a reality show. All right, when I was a kid, I would watch game shows, and my mother is addicted to Extreme Makeover Home Edition, so I’ll catch the odd episode of that when I go home, and, let’s be honest, no one can resist Mythbusters, but I’ve never really gotten into the genre in general. Then, one day last summer, I was at a friend’s house, and the television happened to be tuned to the seventh season premiere of Top Chef. After that episode, I was hooked.
Now, I have heard mutterings on the webnet that the seventh season wasn’t as good as previous seasons. I cannot attest to this. This could be because I lack the proper frame of reference of having seen the prior seasons, and even a substandard season of Top Chef is still pretty damn good. Or it could be because I should perhaps stop looking for perspective on the Internet. At any rate, the current eighth season has been generally lauded as a return to form, and to this, I can absolutely attest. Particularly considering my rather generalized hatred towards reality shows, I’m considerably surprised by how invested I am in this one.
I feel like this is largely because most of the stuff I hate about reality shows don’t apply to Top Chef. My complaints are the usual ones – they’re overly edited, manipulated behind the scenes, obsessed with manufactured drama, populated by obnoxious people, and, if you’ll excuse the cliché, unrealistic. Due to its focus on the competition, Top Chef bypasses most of these issues. They are by no means above the occasional sly edit; they have been known to cut together remarks which likely do not belong together or throw in an apparently incriminating shot. When the producers find drama, they play it up, for which they must to some extent be forgiven – they are, after all, attempting to put on an entertaining show. But the show is most interested in showing the professionalism and talent of its “cheftestants,” and it is focused above all on the competition. One particularly laudable aspect of the show is its refusal to keep on audience favorites even after these people made a poor dish – this season, two of the people I thought would very likely be duking it out for the win were out before the final five. Did they deserve to go so early? Probably not, but the show has its morals and its rules, and it sticks to both.
Now, I might have misrepresented my reality show experience a bit; I do occasionally catch an episode or two at the gym or when my roommate has control of the remote (woman is addicted to TLC). I’ve just never been able to get into them, and that is largely because I cannot stand the people on these shows. I’m not sure whether Top Chef is unique in this or whether I just haven’t been watching the right shows, but this is the only example of the genre where I genuinely care about the people in it. They are not, by and large, awful, and when they are, the show at least has the common courtesy to acknowledge that. But the show does not go out of its way to point out its contestants’ flaws, again a result of its focus on the competition. It could, if it wanted, play up some of the more quirky people’s oddities, but it ultimately cares more about their talent – even with Angelo, arguably the weirdest person even to be allowed near sharp objects, the show concentrated on his extraordinary cooking ability more than on whatever batshit thing came out of his mouth this week. The show is a delicate balance between showing the lives and personal interactions of the chefs and showing the cooking. While some of the arguably best moments on the show have come from the “slice of life moments” (Fabio’s turtle!), the show made a commitment to lean the balance towards the competition, and it sticks to that.
Ultimately, this is an example of what can be done when the reality television genre is used but not abused. Even the twists and curveballs which might be contrived on a lesser show (tonight: Quickfire using the contents of a vending machine! Cooking for our families! Surprise ending!) feel deserved here. I am still an unconverted devotee of quality scripted television, but I do admit that Top Chef has shown me that not all reality TV is soul-crushing darkness.
And finally, a personal note: can a spin-off series of the adventures of Fabio and Richard be put into production like, immediately? I will single-handedly support the advertising revenue for this project.