Wednesday, September 23, 2009

have I got stews for you

Things I Like On TV This Week (Or Thereabouts)

My former university contemporary Derren Brown is laughing at us. Well, not at me; I know the score. But at you. Well, most of you anyway.

Why? Well, imagine you're an illusionist. How do you gussy up an essentially fairly bog-standard mentalism act into something a bit more appealing to TV schedulers? Because run-of-the-mill card tricks and conjuring a bunch of plastic flowers out of a hat won't cut it any more. Just ask Paul Daniels; he's still bitter about his prime-time show being cancelled 15 years ago.

So what to do? Claim divine inspiration? Probably not a good idea in these increasingly secular times. No, better to plaster a thick veneer of cod-mystical bullshit over the parlour tricks and ramble mysteriously about the "wisdom of crowds", hold cryptic objects up to the camera when trailing your programmes, speak in an odd way and repeat or emphasise certain words in an unnatural manner as if this holds some mysterious significance. Strike just the right note of hollow pseudoscientific significance and the punters will lap it up.

Just to be clear, I'm quite confident Derren Brown himself views what he does as a series of parlour tricks dressed up with a bit of flummery to get the punters in. As he himself says, just to have people wondering if he could really predict the lottery numbers (check out the byline on the Daily Mail article - now that's magic) or work out which gun chamber had a bullet in it by the spooky power of his Zen mind-control techniques is testament to the success of this approach, and very clever it is too. Having a special bonus programme to tweak the credulous public's collective nose a bit more by offering up a deliberately hilariously lame "explanation" of the illusion was a nice touch - short of coming on stage in a pair of clown's shoes and bellowing "it's a magic trick, you fucking cretins!" I don't see what more he could have done. It was worth him making the effort just to see the BBC's apparently unironic piece afterwards:
.....some mathematicians have dismissed his explanation as "complete nonsense".
You think?

Things I Hate On TV This Week

Back in the day, Masterchef was a harmlessly diverting Sunday-evening cookery show with a very simple format: get some non-professional cooks in, get them to cook some grub, and whoever cooked the best grub won. That simple formula, plus Loyd Grossman's extraordinarily mangled vowels ("oh, that is MAAAAARRRvellous", "PAAAAAAARSNIP mash with a RAAAAAAASPBERRY coulis", "DELIIIIIIBBERAYDING and COOOOOOGITAYDING") saw them through ten mildly entertaining years. Plus it gave us the source material for one of Vic & Bob's most glorious moments.

Needless to say when the BBC chose to revive the show a couple of years back the sobersided old formula didn't cut the mustard, oooooohhh no. What we were going to need was something that aped the reality TV formula of The X Factor and Big Brother, since clearly the simple art of cooking food wasn't exciting enough on its own. In addition, it was clearly deemed necessary to get some new presenters in to replace old Loyd who obviously wasn't hip and happening enough.

So, to recap, the old formula was as follows:
  • cook food
  • taste food
  • pick the best food
  • erm, that's it
The new formula appears to be as follows:
  • some cooking
  • a gibbering fat-tongued Aussie twat and a grinning baldy Cockney wanker shouting at the contestants and, slighty oddly, each other, especially in the series of clips they have in every show where they tell each other how important the whole thing is: "THIS is where things REALLY GET SERIOUS", "they've got to REALLY WANT IT NOW", etc., etc. These are always set up the same way, with the two talking heads never in the same shot, but bellowing diagonally across the camera in opposite directions, alternately, as if holding a conversation at a Metallica concert, or from fifty yards apart in a wind tunnel. I like to think of these clips being filmed in a quiet little bistro with just a faint wisp of tasteful piano music wafting though the air, not many customers around, except these two gurning buffoons at a corner table bellowing vein-bulgingly into each other's faces from six inches apart: "it's SO IMPORTANT that my steak is PERFECTLY COOKED", "I REALLY fancy ANOTHER GLASS OF WINE, JOHN", "GET THE BILL, would you, Gregg, I'm going for a REALLY BIG SHIT", and so on.
  • some restaurant-skills bits where they have to work in a kitchen for 24 hours without becoming a nervous wreck or stabbing anyone with a carving knife
  • some mind-rotting bullshit segment where the contestants have to convince Gregg and John of their "passion" for food. What? What? I mean, what? How about if I just sit there not answering any questions at all, but just emitting a high-pitched whining sound and carving I LIKE HAM into my forearm with a Stanley knife? Is that "passionate" enough for you?
So in other words it's mutated from being a straight cookery competition where the only criterion is how good your grub is, to some sort of Chef Factor (as an aside, I have a great idea for a show about omelettes called Eggs Factor) reality TV thing where someone gets the chance to (maybe) go and be a real chef. Which is fine, though less interesting than the original format. There's really no excuse for the presenters, though. Incidentally John Torode appears to have been dropped from the latest incarnation, which is called Masterchef: The Professionals and seems to be for people who are already chefs. And the winner gets to...erm...what? Keep being a chef? Great.

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