Thursday, May 29, 2008

Top Chef Finale Countdown: When Nobody Wins, Stephanie Can't Lose

I talk about Top Chef too much. Mostly to people who have far better things to do than listen.

But, tonight, it felt like someone finally heard me. I watched the final-before-the-finale with someone who had never seen the show before; I was his only reference. I pretty much talked right over the first 18 minutes: reminding him over and over again that so-and-so was going to win or lose based on how much confessional air time he or she was given. Only after a gentle nudge did I realize that it was hardly an indicator - based on the sideline stories, my friend assumed that Richard was the weakest link, and Antonia was going all the way. He may be only half wrong.

I had the same reaction to tonight's TC episode that I did when Julia Sweeney started writing for Sex & The City - after, presumably, the focus group feedback forced the SATC producers to feel accountable for the searing cultural impact of their thinly conceived storylines. Suddenly, things got a lot funnier ("I stopped watching TV when people started putting leeches down their pants") and a lot more candid: The diagnosis of Samantha's breast cancer forced a dialogue about privileged America's smug, misconceived association between reproduction and mortality. Finally, the commentary the show created found its way into the script.

While no one (including herself) has expectations of Lisa going any further than she already has, the girl deserves some moxy points for her middle-finger subversion of the established premise. The inclusion of peanut butter into a starch that didn't need any more flavor could only have been a poke towards Stephanie's dish in the Family Budget elimination challenge: a dish that would have sent anyone else home. The judges had no choice but to let Lisa get away with it- and that's probably why she's going on to Puerto Rico. And for the first time, the table addressed what everyone in the audience has been thinking for weeks - that Spike and Lisa might be sliding by on dumb luck. At long last, the dumbest of the lucky got the cut: Once again, Spike's insistence on depriving his competitors of the "money" ingredients blew up in his face. A frozen scallop is even less useful than a lettuce and tomato garnish, when the people you're serving want something they can eat.

For someone as obsessed with TC as I am, you will rarely find me on the edge of my seat until the last second like I was tonight. For better or for worse, I usually have a pretty good notion of how things are going to go down. But tonight, the diners' comments were so universally harsh that I didn't know what to expect outside of Stephanie's requisite win. And even that was dubious - the response to her dishes were so disproportionate that it suggested a red herring. (I wonder if anyone will ever create a spin on that?).

I give Stephanie credit for continuing to seem surprised. With Spike gone, and Richard losing his grip, and an unprecedented 3-to-1 female-to-male ratio, I wouldn't be surprised if we were surprised again.

No comments: