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'MasterChef Junior': The Secret Ingredients Are Moppets And Empathy

Abby knows better than to lose her concentration while cooking.
Greg Gayne
Abby knows better than to lose her concentration while cooking.

It's not necessarily intuitive that Gordon Ramsay, who once told a Hell's Kitchen contestant that a poorly cooked piece of fish resembled "Gandhi's flip-flop," would be good with children. It's surprising, then, that MasterChef Junior, a kid-centered spin-off of his Fox show MasterChef, is one of the most warmly reviewed reality-competition shows ... maybe ever.

The thing to understand about Ramsay's profanity (and his anger in general) is that it's contextual. He's angrier and much nastier on the U.S. version of Kitchen Nightmares (a show where he invades a failing restaurant to try to fix it) than he is on the U.K. version, despite the fact that the premises of the show's incarnations are identical. We apparently tolerate more yelling over here, so we get more of it.

It's already true that MasterChef, which focuses on home cooks, is much less angry than Hell's Kitchen, which focuses on alleged professional cooks (although many of them seem unqualified to boil a hot dog). But in the junior edition, Ramsay — along with judges Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot — becomes a sort of encouraging camp counselor, pushing kids to try new things but always making sure he remains on, and at, their sides.

Thus far, they've done a very good job of essentially never casting brats — never casting kids who are there to be even endearingly unlikeable. They don't cast kids who are filling niches as snotty kids or stuck-up kids or kids who say nasty things about each other (they jokingly trash-talk about taking each other down, but that's very different). That's different, for example, from Kid Nation, the 2007 CBS show that sequestered a bunch of kids in a phony town to start their own society — a show best known for the aggressive and polarizing 10-year-old Taylor, who barked "DEAL WITH IT!" at people. There are no Taylors on MasterChef Junior; you are meant to always, always root for everybody, with win/loss investments simply being based on the survival of your special favorites, not the need for some nine-year-old to get a taste of hardship.

The funny thing about this show, though, is that they're kids, and they're all pretty nice people who have a legitimate skill (that would be cooking). That gives the audience a chance to enjoy some of the really fun things about competition shows (growth, personality, triumphs) without the bad things about competition shows (backbiting, unpleasantness, resentment). It allows the audience to be on the side of not just some participants but all of the participants, which is secretly what a sizable chunk of the supposedly bloodthirsty crowd really wants to do anyway.

And that doesn't mean you don't care who wins. I care deeply who wins. I tend to invest the most in the smallest contestants, meaning that in the show's first season, I was a booster of Jack, a small boy who favored colorful shirts, and Sarah, a 9-year-old girl who was so self-possessed that she always seemed on the verge of starting her own empire — but in a great, normal, not-too-precocious sort of way.

This season, I am carefully tracking the fortunes of Abby, a bespectacled eight-year-old, and Oona, a wry nine-year-old. If they made The Abby And Oona Show, where they just talked about whatever was on their minds at the moment, including but not limited to food, love, and world events, I would tune in. In fact, we need to start the Abby And Oona podcast. This is Oona, introducing a dish she's cooked, and right at the very, very, very end? That's Abby applauding with more good-natured sportspersonship than the jocks at the end of Lucas.

I love them all. I want to take them all on a group tour of NPR and let them stampede through the studios, and then I want to take them to the Capitol and let them Silly String some congressional offices. They are uniformly delightful, they all know how to cook things I couldn't make if my life depended on it, and most of them have to eventually be eliminated, which is the only part that's no fun at all to think about.

MasterChef Junior airs Tuesday nights at 8:00 on Fox.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.