From Top Chef to Hell's Kitchen, we just can't get enough of cooking based reality shows. ABC announced earlier this week that they'd be throwing their chef's hat in the ring next year with a new show called The Taste (a la The Voice), which will be hosted by Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson. But do we really need another hour of prime-time television devoted to watching chefs fumble around with outlandish ingredients while they race against the clock? Yes. Yes we do.
In truth, there's not a lot of differences between Iron Chef, Master Chef, and the rest. They all consist of thematic, timed, sometimes team-based challenges to impress a panel of judges, one of whom must be British, or at least Canadian. In order to understand why we love these cookie-cutter cooking shows so much, you have to realize just how monochromatic the majority of all reality game shows really are. Since the early days of the pioneers like Survivor, and The Bachelor, reality TV competition has evolved very little. Phenomena like a “Bottom 3,” “Immunity,” and judgmental limeys have all been repackaged ad nauseam in countless different contexts.
Tell me you haven't seen this a hundred times: The decider (host, bachelor, etc.) stands in front of the contestants and orates briefly on the virtues and flaws displayed during the most recent challenge. The contestants are then divided into sub-groups and some of them are deemed safe from elimination. Finally, after a commercial break and some more tacked on suspense, we find out who is going home this week.
So why cooking? If all competitive reality TV is basically the same, what makes competitive cooking so appealing that we need literally dozens of programs devoted to it? The answer, I think, is quite simple. Everyone cooks, and we all struggle with it at least a little bit. Even the most accomplished home cooks have forgotten an ingredient, overcooked some pasta, or left something in the oven too long. This universal difficulty makes the culinary chaos that unfolds on all these shows highly relatable, and hence highly enjoyable. Of course, everyone eats as well, and while we don't all pride ourselves on our refined palates, it's impossible to turn off your taste buds. Since we can't avoid judging the flavor of any given meal, even imaginary ones on TV, the critics like Gordon Ramsay and Padma Lakshmi can be just as endearing as the contestants. A big part of what makes reality television so infectious is how easily we come to root for different people, and judges are hardly exempt from this fandemonium.
With this criteria in mind, it's not surprising that the other two most popular reality game show platforms are singing and dating. Like cooking, singing and dating are as ubiquitous as they are difficult. We all sing, we all date, and we all judge each other's singing and dating all the time, just not quite so overtly as on TV. The universality of the foundations for these shows are what makes them so darn appealing, and so darn prevalent. Conversely, there's only one Top Shot, and one Ink Master, because not everyone shoots guns and has tattoos.
But what really makes shows like Chopped, and other Top Chef variations so enjoyable is the fact that cooking and eating, unlike singing or dating, are daily obligations. Seeing people get praised and even rewarded for their efforts in the kitchen is vicariously very satisfying, and watching subpar chefs get yelled at for making people eat crappy food is even more entertaining, as that most heinous crime goes unpunished all too often. Aren't these sorts of pleasures-by-proxy the whole point of TV in the first place?
The vast number of similar programs is definitely a good thing, enabling everyone from gourmands to fast-food junkies to find a show tailored to their tastes. So I for one welcome The Taste. I say do need another show about competitive cooking, just in case someone out there isn't watching yet.