The Surprisingly Complex Narrative Structure Of MasterChef

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’m in total love with MasterChef – it may be my favorite TV show, period.  It’s got that perfect balance for me between “presenting interesting, sympathetic characters” and “love of cooking,” as a bunch of amateur chefs struggle to cook up world-class dishes, with the usual elimination challenges to winnow out the contestants.
Hell’s Kitchen focuses on the stress of the kitchen, highlighting dysfunctional personalities and the arguments, and we hardly ever feel the joy of getting a dish just right.  MasterChef has its share of brutal takedowns, particularly when someone flubs a dish, but it also has a lot of kind mentoring in terms of praising the people who broke through this week.
(I suspect one of the reasons I find MasterChef so comforting is that it has a Clarion Workshop rhythm – we wrote a story every week, it got judged, and you either got lovingly eviscerated or cheered on by everyone.  Although, thankfully, nobody got voted out.)
But the interesting thing about MasterChef is that it’s got a really terrible beginning of the season to that ultimately works.  Which is to say that if you “improved” MasterChef, you’d actually break it.
Because when the season starts, there are eighteen people – and that’s just too damn many to focus on in an hour.  The first six to eight episodes of MasterChef consist a lot of “Wait, who’s that guy?” and “What had she done?”s, and folks get booted out that you had no emotional attachment to.  They do their best to assign easy-to-remember tags – here’s the fat jolly dude, here’s the ex-stripper, here’s the mouthy stay-at-home dad – but still, there’s a huge mass of people that you don’t actually know.
The easy “fix” would be to have fewer contestants – start with eight easily-recognizable archetypes and we’d remember them all very clearly.  But an interesting thing would happen:
We wouldn’t get attached to the contestants ourselves.
Part of the joy of MasterChef is seeing a welter of people every week, and eventually coming organically to your favorites.  It’s like picking a puppy out of the pile – you watch them all romping to and fro, and eventually one of them does something that grabs your attention, and then somehow that becomes “your” puppy.  Even though the chaos of the opening weeks is a little wearisome, it’s a necessary work on the viewer’s part – because once you’ve found your Luca or your Krissy, you feel an attachment you would not normally have.  So when they start getting eliminated (or, better, forge ahead to the next level), you are riveted.
Which just goes to show how fascinating narrative can be.  One of the maxims of fiction is that you want to let the reader do the work – you don’t tell them “She fell in love,” you show all the little signs of love and have them come to the conclusion for you, because if they make the connection then they’ll be that more attached to the outcome.
There’s a weird idea in fiction (and particularly TV) that you don’t want to have the reader work too hard or they’ll wander away… but the truth is that you don’t want the reader to not work, either.  When the reader does some of the heavy lifting to make their own judgments about what’s happening in your narrative, they are now personally invested in seeing if they’re correct.  They get drawn in more.  And so while on one level MasterChef’s convention chaos of “too many cooks” should spoil the broth, in reality it’s a tradeoff: you endure this confusion early on to arrive at truly heart-tugging challenges in the later episodes.
Which is a good lesson for writers: Yes, it’s okay to make things a little confusing.  You still have to make it entertaining – the moment-to-moment bits of MasterChef are palatable – but sometimes, the readers unknotting that confusion for themselves gives them a satisfaction they can’t get elsewhere. And with that satisfaction will come a burning need to know what comes next.

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