How The Story Is Told: Hell's Kitchen Vs. Master Chef

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Non-writers think the idea is the unit of writing – as in, “Hey, I got this great idea, I’ll sell it to you, and you make a million bucks!”
Problem is, the idea is actually one of the least important bits of writing.  I mean, yes, you need an idea to start a story, but an idea is like selling someone an acorn for a hundred bucks, because hey, man, this could be some serious lumber.
No.  Stories are all about the execution – the characters who exist in that idea, the emotional journey they take, the reader’s investment in the story.  Without that, the idea pretty much counts for nil – and the shows that brought it home to me last night were Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef.
Both of them are reality cooking shows, hosted by the same guy.  The structure is basically the same – throw sixteen cooks into a pressure cooker, have them do small-scale challenges (each cooks a dish with a certain number of ingredients), and large-scale (they split into teams to cook for huge numbers of people).  Every week, one of the less-talented chefs is tossed off the line, leading to the One True Chef.
That’s the idea.
Now, the execution is in how the shows present the chefs.  Because I find Hell’s Kitchen exhausting and sad, vastly preferring Master Chef – as Gini accurately observed, “I never want to cook anything after watching Hell’s Kitchen, but Master Chef makes me want to get out there and create.”  And that’s because the challenges are presented entirely differently.
In Master Chef, when a chef beats a particularly difficult challenge, there’s a loving circle of the camera on the food that they worked so hard to create.  There’s swelling, triumphant music.  There are long shots of the flushed victor’s face, of the other teammates clapping for him (perhaps with a brief, ominous cut to The One Jerk conspicuously not clapping), and an acknowledgement that this chef has, at least in this moment, faced the abyss and pulled through.
In Hell’s Kitchen, you have the exact same moment – at least as far as the chef is concerned – but we cut away to the other teammates, each bitching about how they could have done better or how the chef got lucky. The food is barely shown. The emphasis is all on the competition, personalities, the toll this high-pressure situation takes on its teammates.  There’s a reason Hell’s Kitchen spends so much time in the after rooms, showing the competitors bitching and romancing and cutting each other down, whereas the Master Chef contestants might as well be sealed in vaccuform until they’re trotted out to perform.
And it’s not like some members of Master Chef don’t hate each other.  Clearly, if you watch last night’s episode, Krissi and Jordan are perfectly willing to insult their fellow teammates.  They could get that footage.  Likewise, there’d be nothing stopping Hell’s Kitchen from presenting the food as if it was the singular accomplishment of a chef and displaying their well-earned pride.  But one reality show is structured to show the challenges in a much more sympathetic light, and the other showcases the challenges as personal insults to the other team members.
Now, some would argue that this is only natural: after all, Master Chef is the “amateur” show, and Hell’s Kitchen is the “professional” show.  But no.  It’d be just as easy to argue that the professional chefs would be kind and courteous to each other, having competed with other chefs all their lives, and the amateurs would be flailing and unstructured.  The truth is, one show chose to make the chefs sympathetic in order to differentiate itself, and that’s the only reason.
The fact is, I suspect both shows are very similar underneath the hood.  You’re placing people in a weeks-long competition that stretches them to their limits, forcing them to live together, separated from their families, knowing their whole future is (ostensibly) on the line.  There will be good moments of surprising friendships, and bad moments of egotistical self-destruction. All of those scenes are on the plate, like ingredients, like idea, a messy gathering of disparate concepts waiting to be pulled up and edited into a Story.
One’s a nice, heartwarming story.  The other’s a cold, mean story of chefs yelling at each other.  They’re both the same thing, at their heart; FOX just had to put a lot of work into them to turn them into a hit TV show.

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