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.
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.
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?