What does reality television tells us about culture?

Some may think that because Americans speak English that they must be just like their cousins across the pond.  But if you watch the British and American versions of popular reality shows (Big Brother vs. Big Brother, Masterchef vs Masterchef, Dancing with the Stars vs Strictly Come Dancing), you will see that our tastes are starkly different in what we enjoy watching.

Masterchef UK hosts

Masterchef UK hosts Gregg Wallace and John Torode (c/o wikipedia)

I was introduced to the BBC’s version of Masterchef last spring. This cooking show is where home cooks compete against one another to become THE Masterchef. Chefs John Torode and Gregg Wallace guide the home cooks through a series of tutorials and challenges. They offer advice. They offer praise. And they even place the home cooks with world-renowned chefs to recreate dishes that would make any chef worthy of a Michelin star.

There is no yelling. There are no alliances, no arguments between chefs, no rounds that if you can’t keep up, you are eliminated.   And you never see more than 6 chefs in the kitchen.  All competitors work their way through a bracket system: quarter finals, semi finals, finals.

The chefs themselves are a hodge-podge of characters.  There are moms, doctors, professors, corporate big heads, and stay-at-home dads. All are endearing, even those who seem cocky and arrogant.   The competitors like each other.  They seem to honestly cheer each other on. And by the time the grand finale rolls around, you are in love with all of finalists and secretly hope all will be allowed to take home the trophy.

Masterchef America's hosts Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich. (c/o fox.com)

Masterchef America’s hosts Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich. (c/o fox.com)

Now, let’s switch continents. Masterchef in America, is hosted by Gordon Ramsey.  And if you know Gordon Ramsey, you know there will be yelling.   The series begins with an elaborate set filled with 20 or more home cooks.  These cooks seem to be selected more on the basis of their flashy and quirky personalities than their ability to cook.

As the home cooks work their way through elimination rounds, Gordon Ramsey and his pals, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, wander the kitchen tasting food and intimidating cast members.  They seem to play the role of drill sergeants rather than chef/critic mentors. The challenge for the home cooks is not to create a great meal, but to not crack under the pressure of the mental and verbal harassment being thrown at them.

The home cooks are regularly put in situations that pit them against each other.   Challenge winners might be asked to place people in groups to compete.   So they put the weakest competitor with their greatest threat.  They might be asked to take away needed tools from their fellow competitors’ arsenal.  Again it seems like the cooks are being asked to strategize more and think about cooking less.

At some point I quit watching this season’s Masterchef (US). It was too stressful.  The cast members were mean and vindictive.  In their interviews, they tended to blame other cooks for their poor performance rather than think about how to make their own performance better.

So why do Americans want to watch this?  Why is it that when given to an American audience, a happy supportive cooking show was turned into an every-man-for-himself survival show?

And what does it say about our two cultures?  Are the Brits too soft?  Do they need more intensity in their television?  Or do American’s thrive too much on watching people get kicked while their down?  I wonder what Masterchef China is like?

Based on watching these shows, it seems as though the Brits enjoy a good competition, but they also want to see the competitors being nurtured by supportive mentors.  They want to see the personal growth of each competitor.

Americans seem only to want a cutthroat competition.  They don’t want their time wasted with nurturing.  They don’t value minutes spent discussing the competitor’s improvements.  Americans just want to see a good ol’ battle for the last man or woman standing.

Have you ever watched a version of your favorite television show in another culture?




19 replies

  1. We also love Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, but the BBC version is so much better! There is definitely swearing and telling, but all those other constructed dramatic elements like music and sound effects are absent. The BBC version feels more like inherently you are really pulling for the restaurant to make a turnaround whereas the American version is kind of a hate fest. I chalk it up to our highly competitive culture…make or break.

    • I am a big fan of Top Chef, which in a way, is much more like Masterchef. They then again the chefs are professionals, they aren’t home cooks. What I also like is that with MC BBC, I actually learn something. I don’t think I have ever learned anything from Ramsey and his cronies.

  2. I love (British) Masterchef, both the amateur and pro ones, though they changed the format last series and I wasn’t a fan of some of the changes they made.

    I haven’t watched the US Masterchef but it sounds awful! I’ve seen an episode of the US version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares though and the thing that struck me most (apart from HOW SHOUTY IT IS) is that it seems to be made for people with zero attention span. Every clip is almost ludicrously short and every last sentence and scene is repeated over and over again as if the viewer has the memory of a goldfish. And of course there are adverts every five minutes. Completely bonkers.

  3. “Hell’s Kitchen” was done here in Germany last season with Frank Rosin in Gordon Ramsey’s role and with celebrities competing, and it was just as you described. He got frustrated but never yelled. He didn’t intimidate the cooks, but instructed them. No “You used so much oil that the U.S. wants to invade the plate!!!!” (admittedly my favorite Ramsey quote). Although I couldn’t stand one of the celebs, I began to get behind everyone else, and they worked together to support each other.

    I’ve noticed a simliar thing with quiz shows. On some of our favorite German quiz shows, quite a bit of time is spent between questions explaining the answers, especially when the topic is science. They use visuals, models, examples, or demonstrations to clarify. Compare that to Jeopardy, which I always enjoyed. Americans would never stand for the extra time spent on German quiz shows for _learning_. “Just give us the answer and get on to the next question!” The German-style quiz show wouldn’t last half a season in the U.S..

    • Well I thought the versions of Big Brother were just as opposite. American were jostling for alliances before they even knew each other. The Brits never once spoke of alliances. They might of hated each other, but they didn’t form groups bent on destroying the other group.

  4. At least with a show named “Cutthroat Kitchen” you know what you’re getting into. That said, the wife and I enjoy British shows much more than American shows for the very reasons you lay out here: yes, it’s a competition, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about it.

    Well said all around!

    • Exactly. If you know from the title that it is going to be kitchen boot camp, ok. Survivor…makes sense. But if it is about being a master of cooking, I want to see amazing cooking. And if you call yourself “Big Brother” shouldn’t there actually be a Big Brother in the show. America has completely taken that element out of the show.

      • Exactly. They used to have a room and a voice in the old ones. They still go to the confessional, but there is no voice directing them as to what to say or answer. And the MC of the show tells them when to go outside for challenges and stuff. DUMB!

  5. I can’t stand reality television, but I do enjoy watching my favorite sitcoms in other languages. Sometimes it’s just the voice dubbing that I find fascinating, but sometimes the translations are interesting. A lot of the jokes that I find funniest simply don’t translate outside of English.

  6. I must say, I love America’s Next Top Model and So You Think You Can Dance US way more than the British versions. I don’t know about being a model (or, indeed, about professional dancing) but I love the hosts a lot more in the American ones. It’s just more entertaining.

    • I had no idea there was a SYTYCD England. ANTM is way better than Top Model Deutschland…I love Heidi but she can be so cruel to the girls. She sits there with their pictures and says all these mean things until the girl is crying and then smiles…just kidding!

  7. I heard that Germany had introduced its own Bake Off, but I’ve yet to catch it.
    I do agree with Charlotte though, ANTM is much more polished, entertaining and glossy than its British counterpart – perhaps because ANTM is slightly more exotic to me being a Brit, but the British version seemed very try-hard. And GNTM was entertaining for a while, but I wish Jorge hadn’t gone!

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