Reality shows, at their best, give you little flashes of understanding, often in spite of themselves. A great example came around Wednesday night, as Top Chef crowned its winner.
[Hey: INFORMATION ABOUT THE FINALE AHEAD, in case that wasn't obvious. Stop reading if you're still planning on watching and you'd like to be surprised.]
This season, Top Chef was in New Orleans, and while many of the chefs were very talented, there was one theme that was obvious from the beginning: this was a season of very, very strong female chefs. That was awfully encouraging for a show that had crowned two women in ten previous seasons.
To name just three: There was Shirley, who won four out of the 12 individual Quickfire competitions in which she participated and four of the 16 elimination challenges. There was Stephanie, who won two elimination challenges and cooked pretty consistently well. There was Nina, who was intimidatingly good all season, won several challenges, and probably inspired (along with Shirley) the most rapturous commentary from everyone, week after week.
Stephanie was eliminated in a very unfortunate situation where six contestants were divided into two teams of three, and on Nicholas' team, there were two really good dishes from Shirley and Stephanie and his very bad dish, which was so very bad that his team lost because of that dish alone. The catch: Nicholas had won an earlier challenge and therefore had immunity, meaning he couldn't be eliminated. So Stephanie, despite making what everyone agreed was a very good dish, went home for her dish being slightly less very-good than Shirley's.
Shirley surprisingly went home in the second-to-last challenge, leaving a finale that was between Nina and Nicholas — yep, Nicholas, who survived a bunch of bad performances, lots of middling ones, and a seeming inability to get along with anyone.
In the final meal, the chefs were told they had to make four courses. Nina made two extras — an amuse-bouche and what they called an "intermezzo." Those two extras, while the judges loved them, were thrown out on the basis that they weren't technically part of the challenge. The judges disagreed strongly on the outcome, but following what certainly appeared to be pretty heavy lobbying by Tom Colicchio, Nicholas was the winner, based on mushy ideas about the "overall experience" of his meal versus Nina's.
It was profoundly unsatisfying. Profoundly. Nina seemed without question to be consistently better and more talented than Nicholas was. He knew that was the impression everyone had had all season — he pouted to her while the judges were deliberating that he figured he would lose, since he would have had to be "perfect" to have a chance against the impression of her they already had.
Colicchio has said again and again that they judge the individual meal, and they don't go by the other stuff you've done all season. Everything is out the window, everybody has a clean slate. That means — and always has — that very often, the best chefs do not, in fact, get to the end. This is a sort of process-based fairness, where they do what they say they're going to do, subjective criteria are applied as the judges have every right to apply them, and everybody gets the outcome they agreed to when they started.
But it stinks. Fully, royally, pungently, and to high heaven, it stinks when a guy gets immunity based on a little tiny challenge and it saves him from having blown it in a great big challenge, and it stinks when the team structure the show has set up means they can't even send home the next worst person, because that person didn't happen to be on the team he single-handedly caused to lose. It stinks when a chef is dominant all season and loses on wobbly grounds to one who is told at the beginning of the season that he doesn't season food appropriately and is still being told the same thing at the end of the season. It stinks when somebody who's both very talented and very supportive of other people loses to a guy who hollers at everyone to the point of throwing a mid-service tantrum that's loud enough for the judges to hear.
(I don't know about you, but I would never, ever return to a restaurant where my meal was interrupted by people shouting. It's the "hair in your food" of service.)
No matter how hard any competition tries to frame fairness in terms of its own rules only, there is always another idea of fairness floating around and waiting to pounce. Perhaps it's the difference between fairness and (to borrow a term better suited for more serious contexts) justice. Everybody understands they have a right to do whatever they want, and they have a right to decide Nicholas' "overall experience" was superior. (Though it's hard to understand why service and Nina's extra bites didn't count for more in that calculus.)
The risk of showing people competing against each other over the course of many weeks is that it becomes fairly clear who's better, and based on what I know of reality-show editing, if it had been possible to put a better spin on Nicholas' abilities relative to Nina's, they would have done it, knowing he was the eventual winner. There's nothing wrong with following the rules you have, but wow, it can wind up feeling like a cheat.