Plate up actual talent, please

Cupboard’s bare: MasterChef’s derided ‘battle of the sexes’ is over but the show is struggling to keep viewers engaged.Two weeks into the new season of MasterChef and the introductory ”girls v boys” competition has thankfully ended. You would have to say it ran too long by about, oh, 14 days or so.

These are testing times for Channel Ten’s former reality show flagship, which has seen a steady erosion of its reach over the past three years. Only the premiere of the fifth season has drawn a capital city audience in excess of 1 million viewers and since then it’s been solidly trounced by The Block Sky High, among other shows.

The promos were so cheesy that you almost had to wonder if MasterChef was trying to troll the viewing public to draw a reaction. The primary achievement of girls v boys – even women v men would have been a better title if you had to have the wretched concept – was to provide reams of macho male bonding and footy team bravado. When did Howard Sattler sign on as a consultant?

The producers couldn’t have known that gender inequality and discrimination would be at the forefront of the national debate when they filmed these episodes several months ago, but what did they ever hope to gain by having groups of men in blokey huddles muttering “C’arn boys” to each other? It’s great that some prawns got “smashed”, but dial down the boofhead factor.

The battle of the sexes emphasises the increased role that conflict and competition are playing on the current season of MasterChef. The notion of the triumphant, feel-good journey MasterChef made its initial calling card with series one victor Julie Goodwin remains, but a divided country needs winners and losers, and successful reality franchises need villains.

MasterChef isn’t embracing the concept as My Kitchen Rules did earlier this year with the divisive Ashlee and Sophia. But the food is certainly no longer the sole focus. The editing of an episode in last week’s extended visit to the Barossa Valley was focused on the growing discord between curtly focused Noelene and flamboyantly loud opera singer Clarissa, whose repeated questions frustrated Noelene.

“She’s rubbed a few people up the wrong way,” observed another contestant, Andrew. The outlines of a villain – or at least a contentious figure unaware of how their behaviour rankled others – were being sketched. From shallow things bitchiness grows.

In April, judge Gary Mehigan was dismissive of the shows that had replaced his atop the ratings. “Soap drama is easy. It’s chewing gum for the eyes and MasterChef is never going to be that,” he declared. Two months is plainly a long time in television.

Remember when the living accommodation was a neutral backdrop? Not any more. In the Barossa narrative, several of the men were loudly snoring (c’arn boys!) in the shed the contestants were bedding down in. It was a bizarre sequence – meant to look as though it was recorded by the hopeful chefs themselves – where several of the women donned warpaint and snuck about in a hunt for “snoring bears”. As chewing-gum-for-the-eyes goes, it was lousy.

It’s a shame; MasterChef still has some great elements going for it. It remains one of the best showcases for the diversity in multicultural Australia and Sunday night’s episode, where contestants had to work hated ingredients such as liver and brussels sprouts into attractive dishes for pre-teen judges was smart, testing and entertaining.

The absence of a slightly uncomfortable superstar chef auditioning for their TV future made for a welcome change. And the cuteness of the primary school-age judges and the aspiring chefs’ reactions were balanced out by the bluntness of their practical verdicts. One child observed: “My mouth says no to it.”

Perhaps the biggest problem MasterChef faces is that it has exhausted the talent pool. The standard of cooking is down in 2013 and judge George Calombaris appears bemused at times by what he is witnessing. “Oh mate, you’ve struggled,” he dolefully remarked to the maker of a failed fish and potato pie. Audiences are starting to have that same feeling about the show itself. My eyes say no to it.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.