I did something the other day that I haven’t done in what feels like a very long period of time: I watched an episode of “Top Chef.”
For a while, I considered the Bravo cooking competition show the class of reality TV. (Non-fashion division, anyway; the subject matter of sister show “Project Runway” was always too big a barrier for entry.) But after a few seasons of it, the show fell off my radar, at a time when I was purging my viewing schedule of most unscripted shows in an attempt to make things more manageable. I hadn’t grown frustrated with the types of contestants or outcomes, the way I had with, say, “Survivor” - I just felt like I’d seen enough iterations of it and wanted to move on to something else. I sampled spin-off “Top Chef Masters” briefly, but didn’t expect to be back with the franchise full-time.
Then the “Top Chef” producers did a very clever thing and called a play that all aging reality franchises eventually try: they did an all-star season.
The show’s eighth season, technically titled “Top Chef: All-Stars” (tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Bravo) brings back 18 former contestants, at least two from each of the previous seasons. There are no former winners, though several (like Richard Blais from season 4 and Carla Hall from season 5) made it to the final challenge and are better-remembered than the actual champs of those years. Some were shocking early eliminations (season 3’s Tre Wilcox), some were remembered as much for causing drama as for their cooking (season 2’s Marcel Vigneron, season 4’s Dale Tald), and some seem to be there mainly because they were memorable characters (season 4’s Spike Mendelsohn, season 5’s Fabio Viviani).
And because I remembered - and liked - enough of them from over the years, I found myself getting sucked back into a show I had made a clean, easy break from a while ago.
Maybe I’m unique in being a sucker for all-star seasons - I came back to “Survivor” last spring for a while before giving up when it became clear that Russell (whom the show’s producers love a lot more than I do) was going to be around a long time - but I don’t think so, given how often they seem to be done these days. “Survivor” alone has done three, “The Amazing Race” has done one and another is rumored, and if the new Simon Cowell-less version of “American Idol” is a ratings fiasco, I would not at all be shocked if the season after this one features former also-rans duking it out for another shot at the top. (Get ready for the Justin Guarini vs. Constantine Maroulis smarm-off! The Clay-Mates vs. Archie’s Army!)
The all-star show has become so common at this point that there are already familiar tropes to look out for in this new “Top Chef” edition. There are the contestants from an early season who seem out of their depth on a show that dramatically evolved in later years; here, the two alums from season one seem badly outclassed, and boast a lot about how no one can take being first away from them, even if the franchise’s talent level grew exponentially as it became more popular. There’s the one-time fan favorite who has started to believe their own hype too much; here, I fear that Fabio, who was one of the most likable reality contestants ever in his first go-round, has fallen victim to what I call Rupert-itis. There are the contestants still hung up on the mistake that sent them home the last time, the ones who refuse to change up a single thing, and the ones who seem to have dramatically upped their game since the last time they were around. (Spike seems a candidate to pull a Boston Rob here.)
And in another sort of all-star twist, the show has brought back its best recurring judge, Anthony Bourdain, for a full-time gig this season. Bourdain is that rare reality show judge who be simultaneously brutal and clever, and is the only Simon-style judge in the game who’s actually better and more likable at it than Simon. (Cowell’s only clever about a third of the time, and gets by the rest on being both blunt and right.)
So we have some of the best, and/or most likable, contestants in the history of the franchise, we have the most entertaining judge back, and the first two challenges very smartly play off the history of both the show and its contestants. What’s not to like? I doubt this brings me back for the next standard season, but for this one? I’m in.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Because Liane Bonin will be recapping each episode for our Monkeys as Critics blog, my plan is to post on the show from time to time if an episode seems particularly interesting in some way.