On 'Authority' and Reality TV Judges

Michel Roux Jnr and Gregg Wallace, judges.
Michel Roux Jnr and Gregg Wallace, judges.

The new series of Masterchef: The Professionals, which began this evening, has reminded me of why I like the Masterchef franchise.  The judges’ feedback is in an entirely different league to that offered on the Saturday night ratings-chasers, Strictly Come Dancing and The X-Factor.

Watching Greg Wallace and Monica Gelati give their comments on ten different duck and leak dishes, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s fantastic ‘Present Tense‘, a Harper’s review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. In the long essay, Wallace takes on the conundrum of ‘authority’ when applied to matters that are ultimately subjective, such as the use of language.  He concluded that the author of the book has earned his authority by showing the breadth of his reading and thinking on the subject at hand.

I see a similar earned authority on Masterchef.  Monica Gelati and Michel Roux, Jnr come to the series with quite a significant amount of (shall we say) ‘establishment’ authority, because they run Michelin starred restaurants.  But the awarding of Michelin stars is a controversial affair and is ultimately based on the opinions of a small number of elite restaurant critics.  Why should we, the hoi polloi who watch Monday Night telly, trust what they say?  Masterchef is enjoyable and interesting because Gelati, Roux and Wallace (along with John Torode, who presents/judges the public and celebrity versions of the show) never take their own authority for granted.  Each piece of feedback is explained and justified in quite a detailed manner.  Even though cookery deals primarily with taste and smells, the audience finds that they agree with and endorse the (subjective) opinions of the judges.  We all learn something about cooking as a result, and the show gives us insights we can take back to our own kitchens and dinner tables.

Compare this with Strictly Come Dancing, where the feedback is often extremely generic (“You know what, I really liked that dance, Audley!”), emotive comments based on the person, not the dance being judged (“Anita, you’re such a nice person!”) or riddle with soundbites – Flamboyant Bruno Tonioli’s orgasmic responses seem pre-prepared and designed to entertain, rather than inform.  Craig Revel-Horwood and chief judge Len Goodman attempt to comment on the holds or the footwork, but there is scant explanation of how the dances are supposed to be performed, which leaves the audience on the outside of the experience.

X-Factor, of course, is hideously compromised by the fact that the ‘judges’ are also the mentors of the competing singers.  Their feedback is tainted from the outset, and – within the context of the show – they lack the ‘authority’ to comment on any given act.  This is before we take into account the deeply cynical and disingenuous feedback that implies that the terrible Frankie Coccoza is even in the same league as the astonishing Misha B.

The fact that the judges in Strictly and X-Factor wield their authority without constantly ‘earning’ it accounts, I think, for the disparity between what they say should happen, and the verdict that the paying audience delivers.  It’s a funny paradox that Masterchef, which is run in an entirely authoritarian manner by the judges, still manages to involve its audience more than the shows that allow viewers to vote for the winner.

Misha B, in a different league
Misha B, in a different league

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