The Masterchef Australia 2014 top 24 [Network Ten via Corner Café]. Tracy is in red, because she’s the enemy.
Ding dong the witch is dead. Last Monday, the whole of Australia [or at least, the Masterchef-viewing population] breathed a collective sigh of relief; Tracy had finally been eliminated. This is not to say that Tracy was a horrible person, or that she deserved to lose – I don’t know the woman personally, but she’s probably inoffensive, maybe even nice – but this year the magical television-making people behind the world of Masterchef decided to do things a little differently. They created a seemingly harmless gimmick called the Power Apron, and in doing so not only antagonised a perfectly boring contestant, but also changed the friendly and encouraging dynamic that sets Masterchef Australia apart from other format adaptations around the world.
I’ve been enjoying the current seasons of both the US and Australian Masterchef formats – but they’re both so varied that they could almost be completely different shows. While the US adaptation is about fostering conflict and drama between contestants, the Australian series has been all about following each individual on their own food journey – about cheering people on, rather than hoping for their failures. That is, until they brought in the Power Apron (also known as the Hate Tracy Apron).
Masterchef Australia has a lot more screen time than its American counterpart. While we get five episodes a week, the US series only has one. But they make it count. Each episode of US Masterchef contains two challenges: either a Mystery Box or Team Challenge, followed by an Elimination Test. That’s right: somebody has to go home in every single episode. In contrast, the Australian series eliminates contestants twice a week. This may seem like a lot in comparison, but you must bear in mind that we only send people home in two of the five weekly episodes. If you’re not familiar with the Masterchef Australia format, Wikipedia does a pretty decent job at summarising how each week generally proceeds (see “episodes”).
The top 22 of US Masterchef series 5 [FOX via Niagara Frontier Publications]. Not pictured: ALL THE DRAMA.
Each challenge in US Masterchef is designed to cause conflict. Contestants are encouraged to criticise and confront each other, for the sake of our entertainment. The winners of the first challenge in each episode (either the Team Challenge or the Mystery Box) are generally exempt from the Pressure Test, but often have the opportunity to make strategic choices that affect their fellow contestants. Sometimes a successful contestant will blatantly announce who he/she would like to see go home, and will make their decisions accordingly.
I imagine that it was the US format’s idea of giving successful contestants the power to affect how others perform in the next challenge that inspired the Australian producers to come up with the Power Apron. On paper, it looks like a great idea – inciting a new kind of drama, and adding a twist to tired/unoriginal challenges, if only for a week. What they didn’t realise however, was that they were in effect ruining the public’s perception of poor, innocent Tracy.
Prior to Power Apron week, I couldn’t have cared less about Tracy. She came across as an unremarkable contestant; one who slipped below the radar – never earning the high levels of praise enjoyed by Emilia and Sarah, but avoiding disaster as best she could. I was neither rooting for her success nor hoping for her failure. But once she won that goddamn apron, things changed rather quickly.
Tracy wasn’t shy in announcing her allegiances. She wanted to make sure Colin and Laura made it through the week. While she may not have been quite so obvious about her enemies, there were certain choices made that seemed to unfairly target some other contestants – asking Sarah to cook tripe in 15 minutes (when she’d given Laura carrots, and Colin chicken) comes to mind.
Throughout just one week of television, Tracy became the enemy. It would have been one thing to give her an advantage or strategic say in challenges that she was competing in, but the biggest flaw of Power Apron week was that Tracy was given a say even when the challenge had nothing to do with her. The croquembouche elimination challenge essentially gave Tracy the opportunity to choose which contestant went home. She had three sections of the recipe, and was able to decide which section was allocated to each contestant. There was no chance, no luck, and with Tracy playing God she was able to decide Kira’s fate. It didn’t seem fair.
Since its inception, Masterchef Australia has been an aspirational series, but the addition of the Power Apron changed that. Although it may not have been intended, the Power Apron antagonised Tracy, and if she’d been in tonight’s grand final, I – like any other viewer – would have wanted her to lose. This year we’ve seen both Laura and Brent grow and develop as chefs. At no point has either of them shown contempt or malice towards a fellow contestant, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be – warm and fuzzy television. I don’t know who is going to win tonight, but I can’t wait to find out!
[Also, wasn't it a shock to see Emilia leave last night?! I was glad George offered her a job - she seems like a talented chef, and I hope she goes far. And yes, I'll admit it. Masterchef completely sucked me in and once again made me care a lot about a whole bunch of strangers who enjoy cooking things. Such is the power of reality television].