Dramatic music swelling, the contestant burst into tears. "I've ruined everything because of an uncooked potato!" she wailed. John and Gregg stood motionless with what was probably supposed to be expressions of great concern, but ended up looking more like confusion with a hint of panic. John slung an arm around her shoulder, with a stiffness usually only seen when two men attempt to comfort each other while being incredibly conscious of not looking too gay. With a hearty clap on the arm, he said "It's just a bad day at the office, hey!" in that awkward way your dad tried to console you when you were a teenager and your first boyfriend dumped you. When the contestant was eventually told she hadn't made it through to the next round, the dramatic music returned as did the awkward shoulder manoeuvre when John attempted to console a deeply distraught Gregg - who almost seemed to jump at the shoulder clap, as if he'd forgotten this bit from rehearsal. So this is the new touchy feely Masterchef. Oh, help us.
Masterchef has evolved over the years, and it's always been one of my favourite programmes. From the first endearingly simple format when Lloyd "Guess Where My Accent's From?" Grossman presented to the updated version with John "Puh-sta" Torode and Gregg "Phwoar! I Could Smear That Pudding On My Naked Body" Wallace, I've watched every episode. There wasn't much wrong with it, apart from the fact that it followed precisely the same format each series: the invention test, the restaurant test, ingredients test, the "why I should be on Masterchef" speech, and cook-offs (with a few other tasks in the finals that were either repeated each series or were very similar.) Admittedly, I shouted at the television a few times and the editing was often rather creative and sometimes misleading, but it was still compelling. As was suggested by fans on the BBC food boards and elsewhere, the challenges needed a bit of tweaking, perhaps taking cues from the format of America's "Top Chef".
"Top Chef" is, in my expert opinion*, brilliant. The challenges are creative, fun, exciting, and interesting. The ubiquitous product placement is maddening and distracting, but the format is terrific. The judges do not hug, shoulder clap, cuddle, kiss, or give pep talks to the contestants. The incidental music is always the same in every episode, unlike the BBC's love of finding the most inappropriate song just because it happens to be on the musical director's playlist at the time. Sigur Ros when someone has just cut their finger on a mandolin while slicing fennel? Oh yes, please!
"Top Chef" does have its moments of drama in the form of in-fighting, bitching, and the occasional romance, but the presenters never seem to be acting. The basic format hasn't changed in 8 series, but the challenges are rarely the same - and this is what makes it wonderfully watchable. "Masterchef" didn't need to adapt the reality TV format, add drama where it's not needed, and force the presenters to behave unnaturally. It did need to revamp the challenges, and hopefully that will happen this series. But please, leave the Torode and Puddingface as they are. It just ain't natural.
*("Expert" meaning: "one who watches a ridiculous amount of cookery programmes and has an unnatural love of the Food Channel.")