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TV Tonight: Top Chef Reunion Dinner

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Not only is Glee taking the night of tonight, but even Bravo’s Top Chef: Las Vegas is on vacation. In its place, however, Bravo is offering us a special one-off of the show, or what we refer to in the Tuned In household as “a ripoff episode.”

Unlike the clip jobs that Survivor like to insert in midseason, though, tonight’s Top Chef All Stars Dinner is, at least, original material. Contestants from the first five seasons get together to cook a meal (there’s a twist—there’s always a twist) and eat it together, reminiscing about the kitchen, the heat and what they did with all those Glad kitchen products.

The participants include standout characters like Carla Hall from season five and Hung Huynh from season three. (Strangely, the winners from the last two seasons did not make the reunion.) It’s hosted by Fabio Viviani from season five, who oversees the proceedings with his familiar charm (and accent), but also seems strangely tense, as if he’s worried about blowing an audition as a Bravo solo star.

It also, maybe unavoidably, includes season two’s bad boy Marcel Vigneron. I didn’t watch a lot of season two, but every time I see much of Marcel—who comes off like Seth Green playing an obnoxious parody version of Wolverine—I’m glad I didn’t. His petulance and defensiveness aren’t funny, they’re just unpleasant, and apparently being out of the competition hasn’t softened them. By contrast, the reunion also invites season five’s Stefan Richter, who was a bit of a heavy but an enjoyable one: he can be an ass, yeah, but he knows he’s an ass.

For all that, there’s a certain bond that the contestants share, and for Top Chef junkies at least, the episode gets really interesting when the contestants sit and jaw about their experience. It’s not just about the high-tension moments, like Casey Thompson seeing Carla for the first time since suggesting the sous-vide dish that 86ed Carla’s finale meal. It’s their rapport, even among contestants who didn’t know or don’t seem to especially like one another, when they talk about things like what it’s like to see an edited version of yourself on TV. (They don’t talk all that much about post-show projects, perhaps because it would lead to some awkward silences.)

You get the feeling that being on a reality show is like being in a war: you’ve been through something that only someone who’s been there can understand, and you can’t talk about it to anyone else in the same way. Some day a couple decades from now, there will be a retirement home in Hollywood for former reality-show stars, and the conversations over dinner will be very much like this one.

Come to think of it, that wouldn’t make a bad reality show.