Tonight on Fox, MasterChef Junior concludes its first (and I hope not last) season, with the ultimate showdown between contestants Alexander and Dara. It was a given that I was going to watch this season start to finish: I liked MasterChef already, but more important my younger son, Tuned In Jr. Jr., is a rabid fan of both reality competition shows in general and cooking competitions in particular–throw in kids, and I had better Season Pass this show if I expect any visits in the retirement home someday.
But what I started watching with a mix of duty and trepidation–they’re going to turn kids loose with knives?–gradually turned into one of my favorite weekly appointments. Exciting, amusing, and full of heart (and chicken livers), MasterChef Junior is not just a novelty but my favorite reality show of the past year. Here are the ingredients:
Those Kids! One benefit of the mass foodie-ization of America: there is apparently a bumper crop of kids out there with more culinary knowledge than entire past generations of adults. (Granted, Junior had an extremely high proportion of kids from the New York and Los Angeles metro areas, but still.) Credit a shift in culture that has brought the whole family into the kitchen; credit a food culture–including shows like MasterChef–that’s made food knowledge into mass entertainment. But Junior evidently had enough candidates to recruit a class of kids with both skills and personality: cheerful Alexander, eager and precocious Jack, and above all, nine-year-old spitfire Sarah, who made “Whip like a man!” the go-to catchphrase of 2013 in the Tuned In household.
The Emotions Are As Real As the Hunger. If you’re anything like me, you will be watching the finale not just with a bowl of snacks but a full box of Kleenex. Granted that I’ll cry at an especially emotional toilet-paper commercial, Junior has done a great job of being affecting without being manipulative. We know that the 9-to-13-year-olds here aren’t just dealing with the challenge of whipping up Beef Wellington–a freaking Beef Wellington!–they’re dealing with the challenge of performing, and potentially losing, under TV lights. That, more than any sharp kitchen equipment, is the unspoken danger of MasterChef Junior. It’s involving to see someone want something, and even the most media-savvy kid can’t mask the heartbreak of not getting there. And yet seeing the grace and good spirits with which the kids handle disappointment (compared with any number of adult reality stars) is genuinely inspiring. These are happy tears, I promise. (Reaches for another tissue.)
The “Junior” Version Isn’t Just a Gimmick. Any kind of “twist” variation on a reality show is a risk; children’s versions are often a death knell. (Recall The Amazing Race Family Edition and American Idol’s short-lived spinoff American Juniors.) But MasterChef, with its premise of featuring home cooks rather than rising chefs, is especially suited for a kids’ edition. It’s interesting seeing grown cooks try to up their game from meatloaf to pate, but it’s absolutely stunning to see kids throw together a savory tomato jam–hell, to even know what one is–and it adds another level of excitement to basic skills tasks like whipping a bowl of cream.
Nothing’s Nicer Than Mean People Being Nice. The joke before the show aired was that it was going to be hilarious seeing Gordon Ramsay throw cursing fits at a roomful of grade-schoolers. No one actually thought he was going to do that, of course–but you may not have expected that a sweet, supportive Ramsay would be absolutely adorable. Most enjoyable over the course of the season, though, has been seeing Joe Bastianich–the Lord High Executioner of the show’s regular edition–evolve into an encouraging role (albeit with a little stiffness at first). By season’s end, the guy was a big old mascarpone creampuff.
It May Actually Have Improved on the Original Recipe. I enjoyed MasterChef in the past, and I’ll watch it gladly in the future. But all the changes wrought by introducing kids into the competition have been for the better. There isn’t the focus on backbiting and strategic maneuvering that the original has, and I didn’t miss that. And since it’s forced the judges to ditch their theatrical toughness, it’s made the trio of hosts more thoughtful in their comments–maybe connecting, through the kids, to their own formative love of food. (One favorite reminiscence: watching Joe and Graham compare notes on the “fat-kid trick” of surreptitiously hollowing out a cake with a fork.)
Often, a junior version of a reality show feels like it’s stooping to accommodate its young contestants. MasterChef Junior feels like it’s been elevated by them. This season wasn’t just good TV by the standards of a kids’ show. It whipped it like a man.