I don't consider myself a cynical person. I hold doors open for strangers, I befriend the cashiers at my local Trader Joe's, and I never hide my smile (unless I'm sitting in LA traffic). Yet as I watched last night's Christmas episode of "Top Chef" Season 5, my big softy heart shrivelled down two sizes. I became a Scrooge.
I call it the "opposite effect." (Or at least I do now that I've come up with the term.) Nothing irks me more than being told to do something. When I was a little girl and my dad commanded me to clean my room, it inspired me to want to do the opposite -- mess it up even more and let the stacks of toys and clothes fester like bacteria in a cesspool. While I have grown up in many ways since that time (ie. gotten really really tall), I have still maintained that innate desire to resist authority.
Within the first few minutes of last night's episode, I knew exactly what the"Top Chef" producers were trying to do. They were attempting to exploit my emotions -- to make me "aww" and sniff and cry into my hanky over the sentimentality of the episode. I felt just as I do when I'm listening to 103.5 FM during the Christmas season, when the radio DJs let people call in with special messages for their loved ones. It's nothing short of gag-worthy. Instead of drawing a tear to my eye, it makes me want to huff and puff and run over little puppies for sport.
Okay, not really. But I still find it exceedingly obnoxious.
Last night's "Top Chef" started off with a one-on-one moment with Boulder cheftestant Hosea, who revealed that his father was recently diagnosed with cancer. The intent was clearly to position Hosea as the "one to root for" in this week's episode, and while my heart did seize up as Hosea reflected on his personal struggle, the transparency of the moment felt like a cheap shot.
The quick-fire challenge where the contestants were charged to make a Christmas-inspired dish using only one pot, further amped up the focus on Hosea. While his paella ultimately placed second behind Ariane's filet and cauliflower puree, Martha's praise of his dish pushed him into the spotlight once again. By this juncture in the 75-minute episode, the producers had already force fed Hosea to the audience, firmly establishing him as the chef to watch during the elimination challenge.
Here's where things get really icky.
For the final challenge, the chefs were commissioned to make appetizers inspired by one of the lines in the "12 Days of Christmas" to serve to a crowd of 300 people -- "8 Lords of Leaping, "9 Ladies Dancing," et all. After they finished prepping their dishes, one of the overextended chefs left a refrigerator door open, and when the contestants returned to the kitchen the next morning, Hosea and Radhika discovered that their proteins were unusable. With nary a hint of concern for their own dishes, the other chefs lept to their rescue, pitching in to help them complete their appetizers in time for the party. Even the holier than thou Stefan got in on the altruistic action, attacking Radhika's duck legs with the passion of a man who has a heart. The only thing missing was the sappy "That's What Friends are for" playing in the background.
At first I was touched by the chefs' compassion, but as the episode dragged on (and on), I grew increasingly irritated by the sentimentality of it all. It reeked of the contrived Hollywood success story/happy ending -- particularly when Hosea and Radhika placed in the final three. I might have been fine swallowing that sucker punch of a storyline if there was something -- anything -- to counterbalance the saccharine taste in my mouth. I felt as though I was the one eating Eugene's sickeningly sweet Poisson cru, and I craved something salty or bitter to provide relief for all the sugar shock. Where were the insults? Why wasn't anyone being thrown "under the bus?" And where the heck did Stefan's pompous European accent go?
Starving for some anger and tears, I waited in rapt anticipation for the judge's table. "Let the blade fall!" I thought with miserly glee, hoping against hope that monotone Melissa might be sent packing. I'd have even been okay with Jamie going home -- mostly because I'm getting tired of hearing her whine about never winning. Boo frickin' hoo.
Yet as soon as Tom, Gail, Padma and, guest judge Michelle Bernstein started in on their deliberations, I know something was amiss. While I was satisfied by Tom's disgusted declaration that he didn't really feel compelled to get seconds of any of the dishes, the judges were acting a little too impressed by the great Hosea/Radihka rescue. The Christmas spirit stole into their hearts, and Tom charged into the stew room like the jolly old elf himself. He began by reprimanding the chefs for being "naughty" with their uninspired deviled eggs and crab cake offerings, but then praised them for their "nice" behavior toward their competitors. In the gaggiest moment in "Top Chef" history -- even gaggier than the dessert Pagma spit out in Episode 2 -- none of the chefs were eliminated.
It was a "Christmas miracle!" Or at least it was for Melissa, Eugene and Jamie.
For me, it was a sappy Hallmark movie.
Tom Colicchio -- the grinch who stole my Christmas.