Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why "the Hills" season finale was more entertaining than "Top Chef Masters"

There isn't much to say about the series premiere of "Top Chef Masters" last night. There isn't much to say about the four contestants, Hubert Keller, Tim Love, Michael Schlow, and Christopher Lee, either. And there really isn't anything worth discussing about host Kelly Choi, who, while cute, is about as engaging as a telephone pole compared to the lovely Padma.

The premise of the "Top Chef" spin-off is fairly simple. Each week, four master chefs face-off for a chance to compete in the champions round. The chef who accumulates the most stars from both the quickfire and elimination challenges will move on for a chance to win the grand prize - $100,000 to be awarded to the charity of their choice. Tears will fall, hugs will be shared and the series will most likely end similar to an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

In other words, it will be a snoozefest compared to the cutthroat, drama-laden previous seasons of "Top Chef." There will be no cringe-worthy make out sessions on the couch. There will be no silly Italians mumbling about monkey ass in clam shells. And there will be no drunken antics involving a razor and Marcel's squirrel-shaped head.

Last night's premiere episode made it clear that these serious chefs are above the mudslinging of previous seasons. They are there to cook, win money for charity, and get a little camera time in the process. As such, I was more entertained by the contrived season finale of "the Hills" that I watched after last night's episode of "Top Chef Masters."

Here's why.

1. A lack of rivalries makes for boring television - Even though Tim Love, "the big Texan cook," claims to be the "underdog" in this first episode, he seems fairly complacent with being underestimated. Unlike Hosea, who made a point of declaring his desire to take down the European dynamo Stefan in season 5, Tim doesn't appear particularly hot and bothered about taking down Hubert Keller. Nor do Christopher Lee and Michael Schlow, who spend most of the episode waxing sentimental about their charities of choice.

In contrast, on "the Hills" season finale, the audience was treated to no less than four different rivalries. Spencer vs. Lauren Conrad. Spencer vs. Holly. Lauren Conrad vs. Kristen Cavalieri. Kristen Cavalieri vs. Audrina. Rivalries create stakes. Stakes create tension. And tension makes for entertaining television. Sentimental master chefs who seem to all love each other do not.

2. Too much talent, not enough screw-ups - The four master chefs have already proven that they know their way around a kitchen. Even though Tim makes the critical mistake of putting his food in the freezer instead of the refrigerator, he still, according to the judges, "exhibited cowboy cool under enormously stressful conditions." The other chefs are similarly praised for their dishes and performance, receiving significant praise from the judges. It's not fun to watch accomplished chefs succeed yet again. There needs to be at least some screw-up in the mix to keep things interesting and to keep the commentary biting rather than glowing. There needs to be someone like Holly on "the Hills" who proves to be the worst maid-of-honor ever when she ruins Heidi's purse at the rehearsal dinner and fights with Spencer outside the restaurant. Her screw-ups are a good foil for all the wedded bliss -- a necessary evil that "Top Chef Masters" was missing in its premiere episode.

3. No Suspense, no surprises - As soon as Hubert Keller appears on the screen, muttering about swimming with dolphins and how being a chef is similar to being a DJ, it's fairly clear that he is going to win. He has an accent, he's the most well-known of the four chefs, and he makes "awesome" desserts with swans and mouse tails made out of chocolate. He's a mad genius and everyone on the show and in the audience knows it. There's no nail-biting at the chopping block. It's a done deal.

On "the Hills" season finale, the main action of the show is centered around the question of whether Lauren Conrad will attend Heidi and Spencer's wedding. While it is fairly obvious from US Weekly spoilers that she will make an appearance, the producers on the show do a commendable job of amping up the tension prior to her arrival. The moment when Heidi sees Lauren is actually quite touching -- a sweet cap to what has been a tumultuous four seasons for the girls. Furthermore, the unexpected presence of Kristen Cavalieri amps up the drama to just shy of a cat fight across the aisle. It's brilliant, and the perfect way to introduce Cavalieri into the cast.

4. Who are these people? The judges and host of "Top Chef Masters" are relative unknowns to the "Top Chef" viewing community, and I struggled to connect with anyone on screen last night. While the previews of future episodes reveal that celebrity judges will be thrown into the mix, I already miss the lovable Gail Simmons and quick-tongued Tom Colicchio.

"The Hills" season finale brought back all the usual suspects from the cast of regulars and irregulars. Even the evil temptress Stacie the bartender made an appearance at the wedding. It was nice to end the season with such familiar faces. Even if I do find most of them exceedingly obnoxious and wish I could send the whole lot of them to the chopping block.

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"Top Chef Masters" has a long way to come before it reaches must-see TV status. As it is now, I'd rather spend the hour reading updates on Twitter about so and so's experience at SusieCakes or the failed execution of a pear crumble.


Esi said...

It was just an overall snooze. Once I realized that it was only those four chefs, I called Hubert Keller's win (to myself). Of course, I will probably keep watching just to have something in the background when making said failed pear crumble :)

Weister said...

I don't watch THE HILLS but after reading what you wrote, it sure sounds better than the premier of TOP CHEF: MASTERS. I totally agree - the show was a bit boring and disappointing. Watching it made me realize what I love about TOP CHEF - young chefs competing to prove to their peers and the world that they are bona fide super star chefs. There's no need for these Masters to prove anything. And the Judges know this and therefore their critiques seemed all too nice and cordial. In fact, the harshest criticism throughout the night came from a girl scout. I also appreciated the TOP CHEF contestants more after watching last night’s spinoff. These Masters are used to working with the best equipment in the world and having their produce and ingredients purchased for them. It was quite interesting seeing Hubert say that he’s not used to shopping for the meals he prepares and that he’s never worked a microwave before.

If there’s anything to like about TOP CHEF: MASTERS, it’s that the show is trying hard to think of new and creative challenges for the contestants. It’s amazing to watch these chefs create their dishes from a dorm room with the simplest of appliances. This is enough for me to come back for the next episode. I just hope they spice it up a bit - no pun intended ;).

Gastronomer said...

I would pay a pretty penny to watch Spiedi cook on TV. They'd probably make something cheesy, like fondue ;-)

Jenn said...

I'd have to agree. It just didn't have that Top Chef feel to it, Maybe next week will fair better, which I'm a bit iffy about.

The Blonde Duck said...

I can't watch the Hills. I just can't.

Diana said...

Esi - Haha, yeah I complain, but I know where I'm going to be next Wednesday night...

Wei - You are so right about the Girl Scouts! Too funny! Loved the girl who said, "It tastes burnt like." So cute!

Gastronomer - Oh gosh... now that would be must see tv! ;)

Jenn - I know, I'm hoping it gets better. I'm not giving up on my Top Chefs just yet!

Miranda - You're missing out... good stuff!

Reeni♥ said...

I missed Top Chef! But it sounds like I wasn't missing much!

Burp and Slurp~! said...

darn, this makes me sad. I was so looking forward to the "Top Chef Masters"...
but actually, it IS the drama that goes behind the cooking that is most entertaining.

Sara said...

I thought it was pretty boring too. I'm hoping it gets better, because it sounds like a very talented group of chefs.

Coffee Maker said...

i can't believe Lauren is leaving; she's the only one I didn't want to leave

Erica said...

Totally forgot this was on, but it sounds like I didn't miss much. Why would they use a different host? Annoying!