The AV Club ponders that question today (spoilers, of course), basically alleging that the producers picked a compelling narrative and pushed an undeserving chef to the top to fit that narrative. I think that reading probably has the facts exactly backwards. It’s much more likely that the producers had to scramble to create that narrative using extremely selective edition from weeks of footage in order to make a legitimate win look interesting.
Top Chef has a problem: it’s two shows at once. It’s a cooking competition, which naturally involves some elements (taste, smell) that home viewers can’t possibly evaluate. In that competition. But it’s also a carefully edited fairy tale, in which struggling cooks start from obscurity, are forged in the harsh fires of competition, and emerge with incredible cooking skills and great sportsmanship: as Top Chefs. (That’s one storyline, supplemented with 1) happy-to-be-there kids who never really had a chance but gave it their all and surprised themselves with how good they could be; 2) overwhelmed scatterbrains – often home cooks or caterers – with quirky personalities; and 3) arrogant jerks who think they’re great but have a lot of growing up to do before they deserve a place in the Kenmore Kitchen with Toyota Tundra and Bello Family Wines.) The fairy tale, put together by producers and editors to create or reinforce the portrayal of drama, may bother purists, who feel it skews their understanding of what “really” happened. But I suspect it’s also why most viewers tune in.
As I see it, the first show – the cooking competition – is the one where integrity is a meaningful concept. The winner of each challenge should be the contestant the judges (who are actually there; who see, smell, and taste the food; who don’t see all the behind-the-scenes drama) believe did the best job. At the end of the season, the last person standing should be the one who’s earned the title. But that presents a problem. What if that person’s actually not that interesting?
I think that’s what we had this season. Spoiler time.
Now it’s hard to really know – all of this can only be based on the footage the producers chose to show us – but my guess is Nick Elmi is really neither a particularly villainous guy nor a mediocre chef. Rather, he’s a spoilsport, whose stubborn insistence on not getting eliminated meant that other, more interesting contestants had to lose.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the footage we saw accurately depicted his behavior (even though we all know it probably didn’t). What did he do that was so wrong this season? He wasn’t nice to his servers. Okay, so? Did it affect how his food turned out, or how the service was when it came to his food? Presumably not (we even have footage of Tom and other judges saying as much). He didn’t give up his immunity to save Stephanie. Yes, and? The point of the competition is… winning the competition. He earned that immunity, the entire purpose of which was to save him if he were otherwise at risk of elimination. He made choices (like making a dish that might not turn out well) knowing he had immunity. And when it came down to it, he needed it. This is a non-problem – it’s good competition!
Now, what did he do that was so right this season? He cooked food that was good enough to get him to the finale. And then he cooked food that was good enough to win Top Chef. With respect to the integrity of the show (and to the possible tarnishing of the brand), that’s all you need to know.
So what do you do in this situation, if you’re the producers? You comb through all your footage, looking for ways to make Nick look more interesting (e.g., you show every single time he gets pissed off in the kitchen, even if it’s only three times over the course of a weeks-long, intense process in which every participant surely did the same thing). And because you want to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the entire hour every week, you make sure, as always, to make the competition look as close as possible – even if, in reality, it wasn’t that close, you give equal screen time to positive and negatives for each competitor. The end result is that at the end of the season there’s plenty of ammunition to argue for the winner – and against the winner. But in addition, there’s a story, a progression, by which the viewer can see how the winner got there. This works great when the producers have the right footage to portray that progression coherently, but it creates a lot of confusion, and a lot of room for disagreement, when the producers lack the footage they need. What happens when the personalities don’t really clash? Or when the woman who exudes confidence, professionalism, and genius doesn’t quite manage to cook well? Or when the guy who “feels” like he’s not quite there actually puts out the best food anyway? Then you’re in trouble.
What’s the best indication that Top Chef producers did their best this season to make an ugly process look like cohesive narrative? The fact that it didn’t really work all that well. This season’s runaway star was Shirley Chung, who steadily demonstrated great cooking, a great attitude, and an amazing story – she’s an immigrant who worked her ass off, learned from her experience, and formed a memorable bond with Emeril Legasse, of all people. I loved watching her compete and I really, really wanted her to win. She didn’t even make the finals! What kind of idiot producers would pick Nick (or Nina) over her? Shirley’s a great chef with a story that people will tune in for, and had she made it all the way to the end, not a single viewer (or reviewer) would suggest for a second that she didn’t deserve it. I guarantee you everyone behind the scenes at Top Chef was rooting to keep her story going as long as possible. Her absence only makes sense in one scenario: a legitimate cooking competition, in which she just plain fell short at the wrong time.
Shirley’s elimination is one of the most memorable examples, but this history of the show is bedazzled with results that confound our understanding of drama, character development, and karma. Each example just goes farther to demonstrate to me that we’re looking at entertainment professionals doing their best to spackle a facade of coherence on an unpredictable (and sometimes unjust) process. I just don’t see how one can suggest that Top Chef‘s results are based on anything but the judges’ honest analysis of the food they’re presented with. The AV Club’s piece talks about “the illusion of fairness” on Top Chef but I think that’s completely, completely wrong. The show’s biggest problem, if it has one, is its need to present the illusion of plot.