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."
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.