Knives are out, and so is backstabbing

TELEVISION CRITIC

Reality television gets a lot of mileage out of bad behavior; framed as comedy or drama, strife is the fuel on which it runs. ("Coming up! Something awful!") Over the last week and a half, for instance, NBC has been making hay from the hash that narcissist-provocateurs Spencer and Heidi Pratt have made, or attempted to make, of "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!," its bungle-in-the-jungle survival contest. That the pair are trouble is what makes them valuable to the network, which has worked hard to keep them on board, even though the sensible thing, in "real life," would be to keep them away.

Like many other reality TV stars, the Pratts -- who got famous on "The Hills," MTV's semi-nonfictional version of "That Girl" -- inhabit a world where notoriety, indeed the mere luck to be noticed, passes for accomplishment. But there is another sort of reality television that celebrates actual excellence, although -- as in "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" -- it often surrounds that celebration with boasting, backbiting and interpersonal discord.

I am that perhaps odd duck who thinks that amity, cooperation and achievement at no one else's expense can be exciting to watch. Indeed, it seems to me that television, scripted and unscripted -- postscripted might be a better word -- is far too heavily invested in manufactured, or at least artificially enhanced, conflict and crisis. And so I find "Top Chef Masters," a spinoff of "Top Chef" that premieres tonight on Bravo, a real mental vacation. A thing of pure delight, it takes all the ego out of the equation and leaves only the art.

This is how it works: 24 already successful chefs participate in a cooking tournament four at a time, the winners from the first six weeks will meet in the last four and the last chef stirring will get a bunch of loot for the charity of his or her choice. (They are playing for charity on "I'm a Celebrity" too, but on this program they actually give the causes airtime.) Unlike "Top Chef," the contestants are not forced to live together and there is no talking trash about the other competitors; self-criticism, rather, is the order of the day. These chefs are big enough not to have to be small, and the production itself is bound to respect them as invited guests, as they seem to respect one another. (Whether they are snippy off-camera or tyrants back at work in their own kitchens, I couldn't say, but they are well-behaved here.)

Tonight's opening bout features chefs Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys), Christopher Lee (Aureole), Michael Schlow (Radius) and self-taught Texan Tim Love (the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro). Some have won major awards;, some have written books. Their first assignment here is to make dessert -- so often the downfall of "Top Chef" hopefuls -- for four Girl Scouts, who may not know cooking (apart from s'mores, of course) but do know what they like. The night's big challenge, submitted to a panel of judges that includes New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene and Saveur Editor in Chief James Oseland, is to prepare a three-course meal in a college dorm room using only a hot plate, toaster oven and microwave. (One chef makes ingenious use of a shower as well.) The results are uniformly inspired. There are a few missteps along the way -- mistaking a freezer for a refrigerator, for example, which is very bad for produce -- but graceful recoveries as well. That's what marks them as pros.

I will not reveal more.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Top Chef Masters'

Where: Bravo

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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