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MasterChef Australia judges Andy Allen, Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo. Image: © Endemol Shine Australia / Network 10

One of the most benign things I’ve learned about my partner’s three years in Portugal was that he watched a lot of MasterChef. Apparently, watching MasterChef while stoned—the Australian series specifically—is a common pastime there. I find this information soothing as it runs against my deep-seated fear that his life in Portugal was vastly more interesting than his life here.

In their affection for MasterChef Australia, the Portuguese are not alone. Throughout its 12-season history, MasterChef Australia has been broadcast in over 170 countries. The current season, which is yet to reach its dramatic denouement, is already being internationally syndicated in 86 countries. While some of these nations also screen a locally-produced MasterChef​, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that indicates many punters prefer the Aussies.

This year, audiences at home and abroad are being treated to an extravaganza of revitalisation. The 12th season comes with new, younger, slightly more diverse, and outrageously more attractive judges overseeing a competitive pool of fan-favourite contestants from past seasons. This refresh, forced in part by a pay dispute with the previous trio of middle-aged male judges, has addressed some of the series’ past critiques. In adding the vast food knowledge of Melissa Leong to the judging pool, the producers have made it less likely (although, still, apparently not that unlikely) those on the show will do ignorant things like call a dish ‘simple’ just because it’s affordable and originates in South-East Asia.

The change-up has not watered down the qualities of MasterChef that make it so attractive abroad. For my partner’s friends in Portugal, MasterChef Australia appealed because it painted a picture of a country that was not only opulently wealthy and sophisticated, but also egalitarian. Every episode, they would delight in the vision of multicultural contestants hugging and helping each other.

MasterChef Australia appealed because it painted a picture of a country that was not only opulently wealthy and sophisticated, but also egalitarian.

In India, the show has even greater cut through. Watched by millions per week, it has been credited with facilitating an enormous change in the perception of Australia. After Indian students were targeted in a string of Australian hate crimes in the late 2000s, ‘Australia’ became a byword for ‘abhorrently racist’. MasterChef Australia’s Indian network debut in 2010 showed a different side. In the Wall Street Journal in 2012, journalist Aarti Betigeri wrote: ‘No longer was there a sense of antagonism about sledging cricketers or perceptions of racism. Rather, everyone wanted to talk about MasterChef Australia.’

This soft power potential has not gone unnoticed by the Australian Government. MasterChef is among a suite of TV programs that will screen in selected Pacific nations in a bid to ‘promote Australian values and cultural exchange’. This propaganda initiative runs parallel to the Government’s decades-long anti-immigration campaign that portrays Australia as unwelcoming and dangerous. A viewer in Port Moresby could conceivably be served this online ad demonising immigration to Australia, before switching on TV to see MasterChef contestant Khanh Ong speak emotionally about coming to Australia as a refugee. While Khanh’s family arrived through what Border Force would love us to call ‘the front door’ (aka they ‘waited in line’ or, in less loaded language, followed official processes), these messages still seem contradictory.

But the point of reality TV is that it is misleadingly named. As a genre, it is one of our more mature forms of escapism. Fictional TV tends to be at its most powerful when it explores complex issues and deconstructs prejudice by building empathy for characters society usually marginalises. Conversely, reality TV draws its power from simplification—by the insertion of some artifice or another (You’re all stuck on an island! You’re all trying to date the same person!), it zooms in tightly on little bits of life and magnifies their importance. We watch reality TV to affirm ourselves in familiar knowledge. Married at First Sight trounces the myth of instant love, making our own problematic long term relationships feel more acceptable. Big Brother confirms we’re not alone in our love of gossip. And MasterChef lets us—a nation shifting from a manufacturing-based economy to a hospitality-heavy service economy—believe that eating expensive food is an admirable hobby.

Given it is part of a medium where skewed portrayals are the norm, maybe the shiny picture of Australia presented on MasterChef should be allowed to slide. But when compared like-for-like within its genre, it comes off as particularly insidious.

MasterChef Australia creates a sort of uncanny valley of authenticity—a reality TV production that is so effective that it’s hard to tell what is manufactured and what is fake.

For the sake of comparison, in a recent act of isolation-induced overkill, I committed myself to watching a full season each of the American and Australian MasterChefs, as well as a recent episode of MasterChef Portugal that my partner reluctantly translated. Then, because days are long and nights are even longer, I also threw in a few episodes of the original British MasterChef upon which all others are based. The only thing I learned from watching the slow-paced and polite British cook-offs (other than that people in the UK are very keen on risotto, but not many of them are good at cooking it) was that Australia made the right choice in overhauling the format.

The Portuguese version is also a shadow of its globally-influenced and expensive Australian rival. Unsurprisingly, given Portugal’s significantly smaller population and economy, the production values are lower, the cuisines are less varied, and the guests and settings lack the glamour and celebrity power we see domestically. Katy Perry does not appear.

In contrast, the American MasterChef puts the format on amphetamines. Everything is hyperbolic and aggressive. The first episode of season 10 begins with the judges arriving in helicopters for no discernible reason. One episode is guest-judged by Alessandra Ambrosio—a Victoria’s Secret model. Another episode is dedicated to what is continually called ‘the best ingredients anywhere in the world’, although in this context, ‘the best’ seems to be code for ‘the most expensive’.

In every US episode the drama is turned up to 11, with the pace of the editing copied straight from a Transformers movie, and—because that leaves no time for contestants to present their own story or even complete a sentence—the producers instead lean heavily on archetypes and stereotypes. I was astounded to find there was a villain. I was equally astounded when, in a group challenge, two white team leaders racially profiled their peers—assigning Black contestants to cook fried chicken and a contestant of Asian descent to cook a Thai chilli sauce.

By comparison, then, the fleshed-out characters, supportive behaviour, and educated and (usually) inclusive cooking of MasterChef Australia is a balm. The producers of the Australian version are truly at the top of their game. Contestants of colour and LGBTQIA+ people don’t have their identities cartoonishly exaggerated; instead they are allowed the space to be complex and real. The editors also demonstrate excellent judgement with their inclusion of casual remarks and footage of contestants and judges goofing off—gently guiding us to believe we are getting a genuine insight into the kitchen. Held up next to America’s rip-off Hollywood fantasy, and Portugal’s low budget imitation, MasterChef Australia creates a sort of uncanny valley of authenticity—a reality TV production that is so effective that it’s hard to tell what is manufactured and what is fake.

MasterChef is executed too well to simply distract from reality. Instead it papers over it, presenting a finely-tuned alternative picture of a much more acceptable Australia.

I’m cynical, particularly about my own country. But the more I watch, the easier it is to forget. The contestants dash about the kitchen cooking food heaps better than what I’m eating for dinner—and I forget to maintain my rage about how the show has cut Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of the picture, even when showcasing native ingredients. I bask in the contestants’ banter—They’re so nice! That’s so cool! It’s great to see that on TV!—and I forget the recent surge in racist attacks on people perceived to be of Asian descent. I feel buoyed by the fact that millions of people around the world are watching and embracing this vision of Australia—and I forget about how our media and political rhetoric stokes hatred of Muslim people. I forget the unacknowledged war our so-called justice system is waging on Indigenous people.

MasterChef is executed too well to simply distract from reality. Instead it papers over it, presenting a finely-tuned alternative picture of a much more acceptable Australia. And it’s this simplified and easy-to-swallow portrayal of our complex society that politicians invoke when they want to deny Australia’s racism. While the show’s creators didn’t ask to be dragged from the soft realm of reality TV and onto the hard-nosed political segments of the evening news, that’s where their instincts for authenticity have landed them. Now, they have a responsibility to push past pseudo-progressiveness and turn MasterChef into something more constructive. They need to stop anointing white chefs as ‘masters’ of BIPOC cuisines and start realising that diversity means celebrating and including Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and all the varied communities who make up Australia.

Making a progressive reality TV show shouldn’t always be comfortable, and nor should watching it. At the moment, MasterChef is the televisual equivalent of those weird sensory deprivation tanks—so relaxing it’s impossible to know if you’re asleep or awake. As a soft power propaganda tool used to win people over​ in Portugal that’s fine, but when embraced by a domestic audience this comfortable depiction of Australia-lite is a potent Kool-Aid. It’s the kind of insidiously effective cultural sanitisation tool that can quietly legitimise the decision to organise a dinner party this weekend instead of attending a Bla(c)k Lives Matter protest.

It’s a recipe for apathy.

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Update 30 June: Added current and former syndication numbers. 

MasterChef Australia: Back to Win airs Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights on Network 10.