It is an accepted truth that TV is not one of the high arts. The HBO side of the industry seems intent on changing this, delivering cinematic shows by the bucketload. However, sometimes true TV magic can be found by embracing the concept of light entertainment, rather than seeking to flee it.
MasterChef (Episode 12, available on BBC iPlayer until Thu 22 March 2012)
We the liberal-minded, educated and youthful are often very quick to slip into critical trends. With as much ferocity as we exhibit in protecting the underrepresented and the niche, we also attack what we perceive as mainstream and popular. Excellent pop songs and some very good hip hop are too often dismissed without proper evaluation, based on pre-conceived genre notions, just as many terrible indie bands are given cursory respect without earning it at all. This same mentality also affects our TV habits. Competition shows are rarely openly discussed, unless they are bad enough to fall under the cursed umbrella of irony. I myself confess to feeling self-conscious when discussing The Apprentice; the mould is difficult to break.
One show that deserves better is MasterChef. Rarely, if ever, does a programme achieve everything it sets out to do. MasterChef manages this and goes beyond it. From the simple premise of a cooking competition comes genuine exhilaration as Tom suicidally decides to remake his macarons from scratch with 10 minutes to go, delicious brutality as Eamonn’s over-complex chicken dish is verbally abused while he weeps, and odd tension as Aki pulls combined stroke and orgasm faces whilst awaiting the final results. The oddness also extends to the nature of the challenges, which can see the unfortunate contestants forced to slave away in the sweltering heat of a Thai marketplace, only to then be judged solely on making afternoon tea for Bill Oddie. All this, blended with displays of real culinary talent, is enough to make MasterChef worth watching, but what truly sets it apart from anything else is the presence of the booming goliaths John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Purposefully shot to seem larger than life, it is both spine-tingling and hilarious in equal measure to see Gregg (camera aimed from below, staring into thin air) roaring “it’s ambitious, but does he really have the ability to pull it off?” into a seemingly-empty room. The hilarity may partly stem from the excellent rumour a few years ago that the two judges were sworn enemies, so had many of their ‘conversations’ filmed individually in separate places, then edited together. This is unlikely to be true, but is an entertaining lens through which to observe them. MasterChef is, after all, a masterclass in making the seemingly-mundane brilliantly exciting, addictive and gripping. This show is not just for those with an interest in cooking, but it’s almost impossible not to end up with an urge to start dicing and experimenting with flavours by the end.
Take Me Out (Episode 4, available on ITV Player until Mon 9 April 2012)
I mentioned irony earlier for a reason. Shows like The Only Way is Essex and its ilk have spawned a related trend to the one that keeps good things down – a trend that elevates shite to the level of caviar. These days it’s far too common to see a standard piece of TV rubbish popularised by scores of people who like to think themselves alternative minded pioneers of post-ironic pseudo meta-cool. They say it’s so bad it’s good, and wear their fandom like a badge of honour. Take Me Out has achieved such status. It is inordinately popular for what it is, and can far too often be overheard being talked about.
Unlike many people who agree with my overall view, I have nothing against the shows themselves. The mere existence of something terrible doesn’t cause me to lose sleep, as long as I’m not forced to watch it or discuss it. Take Me Out is no exception to this. It is the product of the general fashion for almost-retro things, like bread adverts set during WW2 but shot in beautifully-edited HD. The set, the coo-on-cue crowd and Paddy McGuinness’ outrageously jolly presenting style all scream 1990s. It’s an affront to the senses, with bright lights and sudden, booming music every few seconds, but this is nothing unexpected. Blind date shows have always been circus-like, so the presentation is hard to get angry about. I can’t hate on Paddy too much for jumping through hoops either – everybody needs to get paid and, as a famous fictitious Frenchman once said, “my children need wine!”. No, what bothers me is the thinking that brings this kind of show to light in the first place, and facilitates the success it continues to enjoy. In the most basic sense, to like something in an ironic way is to try to have your cake and eat it. It seems like cheating for a person to be allowed to keep the lofty, judgemental air of a cynic whilst also freely partaking of what, in certain company, they would spit on and deride. If you think this qualifies as more of a chip-on-shoulder gripe than a review, you’d be right, but heed the message anyway – buck the trend by bucking the trend followed by people who think they’re bucking the trend. Clear? Good.