There is an election today, and though I encourage everyone to vote -- I would demand it, if I could, with long afterlife punishment for slackers and a special place in hell for anyone who seeks to make another person's voting even the tiniest bit more difficult -- there is only one contest I am looking forward to following on television this evening. I refer of course to "MasterChef Junior," whose second season, subtitled "The Next Generation," begins tonight on Fox.
Although I mean to demean no type of television outright, most reality shows scuttle around well outside my interest. I will dutifully review them when they arrive of course, and consider what the scrapings and bellowings of their various characters says about Who We Are and How We Are as a People, people. But I care for/about few of them, and even some I like and have followed, if they have been around long enough, eventually fall off the rotation in my DVR. It has been a while since I have paid attention to a season of "Project Runway" or "Top Chef."
"MasterChef Junior," however, I love and expect to love as long as Fox, or anyone who might subsequently keep its banner aloft, will make it. I pledge my allegiance to that flag. If nothing else, and it is not a little, this is the show that keeps host-judge Gordon Ramsay (mostly) on good behavior; and a well-behaved Ramsay, because he actually does care -- or does an extremely convincing impression of someone who does -- is one of the more interesting characters of television. More interesting, certainly, to me, than the Ramsay Fox has on offer elsewhere, the one who shouts and curses and loses his mind and carries on all in all like a person on a reality show.
It is of course the kids that make the difference. They are not beyond hubris or competitive calculation; this is not an ode to innocence; they are adorable, sure, but fierce. And they are also sweet and excited and rightfully full of expectation, the oldest being no more than 13, and the youngest 8. (Some have to stand on step-stools to reach the counter; the tiniest wrestle with big appliances.) They are admiring of one another's skills and supportive of each other in their moments of heartbreak and distress. (There will be undercooking; there will be overcooking.) And they are all very happy to be there.
Ramsay, to Oona, 9, discussing her chicken liver pate with brûléed pears and parsley on garlic crostini: "Where do you get these ideas from?"
Oona: "Well, I've always really wanted to make a chicken liver pate, so I thought I might try it."
Ramsay: "You're only 9 years of age. How long have you died to make a chicken liver pate?"
Oona: "Since I was 6 years old."
The judges -- as on the adult "MasterChef," Ramsay is joined by Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot -- also seem happy to be there, and genuinely impressed and even thrilled by the work they're shown; they don't talk down to the contestants, though they are tender when tenderness is called for. There is a current of delight that runs through the show different from other reality contestants, where the grown-ups may feel they have their lives on the line; there is disappointment here, but little bitterness.
And unlike the political contest that TV news will be on tonight like tedious white on underdone rice, and the mixed-up, often infantile world those candidates seek to enter, the only way to win here is to deliver something real and excellent, beautiful and delicious. If you want to feel hopeful about the world and the brave new people in it, this is the contest to watch.
(Some episodes from last season are available to see here.)