Unfair Immunity Tests, unrealistic cooking challenges, a lack of Mystery boxes, dull contestants, lockdowns, Dalai Lama stunts and an interrupted finale.
We all knew last year’s MasterChef had lost sight of what made us love it. So why couldn’t the judges, the producers and the network? Was it a case of being so deep inside the bubble they lost all perspective, or putting on a brave front for episodes that were already in the can?
Since Junior MasterChef tanked and My Kitchen Rules rose, suddenly everybody has seen the light.
Now in the hands of Shine Australia, and no longer FremantleMedia, MasterChef is going back to basics, and back to the people who embraced it: the audience.
Producer Margie Bashfield says last year was all about big challenges, but this year it will return to its core values, with realistic challenges designed to bring out the best in the contestants.
“This year you’ll see it goes from big to intimate. So you’ll find out very quickly who these people are, what sort of food they cook and we’ll be encouraging them to cook the food that is who they are.
“So rather than force them to into dishes that are not them, we wanted to encourage them to excel in their style of cooking.
“Of course we will see people who specialise in one style of cooking doing something else but wherever we can we’re going to try encourage them to take their style with them and adapt it to the challenge.”
It will also shift emphasis to being positive.
“Viewers will be able to see people cooking with abandon -meaning they can cook and there’s no negative consequence. They can strive for the stars, be experimental, do things they’ve never tried to do before and they won’t find themselves in an Elimination as a result of it,” she explains.
“I think it’s very easy to get caught up in the negative. In the drama of ‘Who’s going to go?’ But I’m hoping we get caught up in the drama of ‘Who’s doing really well?’
“This year our philosophy is ‘Give the contestants every single opportunity to cook the very best dish they possibly can.’ And along the way the drama will come. We know that will happen, but let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can when we set the challenges that they have the potential to cook a fantastic dish.”
When MasterChef premiered in 2009 it became a hit as a show celebrating Reality contestants at a time when other shows in the genre were quick to tear them down. Viewers were captivated as Julie Goodwin and Poh Ling Yeow dug deep to realise a personal dream. Both have since become household names.
Bashfield identifies the qualities that made the brand so successful.
“I think viewers love to see people cooking from the heart. I know I do. I think they love to see people being extended and I think they love to see people cooking with ingredients where the audience can put themselves in the contestants’ position and say, ‘what would I do?’
“I didn’t work on Masterchef in the first year and I sat home and watched it and played along at home. When the Mystery Boxes were revealed I thought ‘Oh my goodness what would I cook?’ That’s part of the charm of the show.”
The reaction to the 2011 grand final, split in two by The Renovators was an abject lesson in audience ownership of a show. Viewers were also disappointed that the format had been seemingly cloned into a new show. It diminished the value of the Masterchef format as individual.
These messages appear to have sunk in.
“MasterChef is a unique property in that it’s not ‘our’ show. It’s a public show, so we have a duty of care to deliver what the public want,” Bashfield admits.
“So if people are outraged about something, that’s great…. We’ll think about it for next year and how we can adjust it.
“You want people to have an emotional reaction to what you make. Yes we want them to love it, but there will be times when they might not like the challenge but they still love the show.
“You don’t want them to be bored. That’s the worst thing we could do.”
This season promises a return to Mystery Boxes and Invention Tests, with Immunity Challenges that allow contestants to use teammates as support.
But what about the reactions to Lockdowns? Last year a contestant was kicked out of the series for having a smartphone, which he says he smuggled in just to stay in touch with his loved ones. Isn’t it all a bit extreme for a cooking show?
“I think the term ‘Lockdown’ sounds really mean. We go to a lot of trouble to make sure they know exactly what they’re signing up for and we start that at the very beginning of the audition process,” she says.
“The contestants in Series 3 didn’t have a problem with how the house was run. The term ‘Lockdown’ makes it sound more ferocious than it really is. We constantly assess how people are going. But there are practical considerations when you’re making a show about where you need people to be when we do it.
“We also know people are going to fast-track their skills and learn quicker when they’re not distracted by other things.
“We get advice about what access the contestants need. We have a psychologist who tells us what we need to do to look after the contestants. In regards to family contact, Kate (Bracks) had family contact, and that will happen again this year. There will be people making phone calls, Skyping, and face to face contact, but the amount of that is based on the advice that is given to us about what is in the best interests of the contestants.”
Returned to 7pm weeknights, the show also represents a much-needed shot in the arm for Network TEN, while Nine and Seven are gunning it out with big brand shows like The Voice, The Block, Australia’s Got Talent and the upcoming Downton Abbey. TEN also has to follow on from the success of Seven’s My Kitchen Rules.
“My Kitchen Rules is a great format. It does what it does and they do it very well. It’s a fantastic entrée to what we do,” admits Bashfield.
“It’s brilliant to know that there’s a big enough audience who wants to watch these kinds of programmes. So when they do well, and they have, I think ‘Fantastic. They’re ready, they’re waiting for the main course.’ And that makes me excited.”
And lastly, is the show still getting a fair run from the press? The honeymoon of the first year has certainly shifted. Do articles about Plating Up Scandals, Smartphone Cheating and Spoiler Leaks come with the territory of being a hit show? Do viewers really care?
Bashfield leans towards the positives.
“What I do like is that they’re talking about us. So I listen and think ‘Did we do the right thing, could we have done it better?’ So it’s certainly not a bad thing having people keeping you honest.
“As I said, it’s not our show. It’s the public’s show.”
MasterChef Australia returns 7:30pm Sunday on TEN.