June 21st, 2011
03:10 PM ET
Last week, the third season of “Top Chef: Masters” wrapped up, and my immediate response was that congratulations were in order… to all of us viewers who made it through the entire wretched season.
The problem wasn’t that the chefs weren’t talented. It was that the producers drastically altered the format of the show from the first two seasons, and in doing so sapped it of any drama or appeal.
In seasons 1 and 2, many of the “Masters” contestants were true celebrities (in the culinary world, at least). The show was also structured so these top-name chefs could actually compete. All they had to do was dedicate a weekend to their preliminary round, then maybe one week if they made it to the finals.
But producers decided to shake things up for this latest version, requiring chefs to stay for the duration of the competition, and when you require more time, you can’t get big names. The result: a group of chefs who, while established in their own right, were indistinguishable from a standard “Top Chef” cast to the majority of the audience. Combine that with the restructured elimination format, and you’re basically watching a standard season of “Top Chef.”
Except, since these chefs were established, they were playing for charity. So you lose the drama of up-and-coming chefs trying to establish themselves, and you lose the whimsical fun of watching culinary icons take on “Top Chef” style challenges. (Seriously, the idea of Hubert Keller using a dormitory shower to cook pasta will never stop being awesome.)
It’s a trend that we’ve seen, especially on reality shows, where producers throw in a completely unnecessary format change that ultimately ends up backfiring.
“Survivor” introduced the idea of Redemption Island this past season (and in the process totally ripped off MTV’s “Real World/Road Rules Challenge”), but the twist proved utterly pointless since the people who made it back into the game were voted off again immediately. Thankfully, the show’s planning to do it all over again in the fall.
“So You Think You Can Dance” tried something similar last season by cutting its field of contestants in half in order to bring back all-stars to pair with the competitors. I enjoyed watching some old favorites, but it raised serious concerns about whether viewers were voting for the actual contestants or for the already-known partners, who of course weren’t eligible to win anything.
Even “The Amazing Race,” long seen as a standard-bearer when it comes to competition-style reality shows, went off the beaten path when it tried a “family” edition several years ago. But racing in teams of four instead of two, and involving a number of underage racers, meant that the travel possibilities – a huge drawing point for “Race” – were severely limited.
We love these shows because of what they are. Little tweaks here or there can be helpful (anyone remember the original hosts of “Dance” or “Top Chef”?), but the shows have longevity because they’ve found a format that works well for what they need. Attempts to alter that wholesale just sacrifice quality in an effort to grab more viewers, especially when the changes are made for no reason other than to shake things up.
In the case of “Top Chef: Masters,” it was such an egregious format change that it might have ruined the franchise entirely.
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