Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Reality Show that Really Showed Compassion

Israelis have been glued to their television sets for years watching the rising fortunes and shattered dreams of individuals displaying their talents as they sought recognition as the country’s next singing stars and dancers. We laughed and we cried along with the contestants on dating shows, were thrilled with each of their big brother antics, and urged them along as they plotted their survivor tactics. We fantasized about our own fifteen minutes of fame and glory even as the reality shows became less and less real. None of it mattered, because this was the new wave of television.

Even so, none of these talent searches attracted me. In fact, I quickly switched channels instead of seeing the trumped up, false drama of the auditions and the nasty aspects of the selection processes. It didn’t matter to me that famous celebrities were serving either as the contestants, or as the judges. Reality shows, I thought, were fake representations of society. They just weren’t real.

All of that changed with Master Chef.
This was the second season of the show, which featured a cook-your-way-to-fame formula that turned out quite delicious to watch. It seemed that anyone, really anyone, could be a contestant, and it didn’t matter if you were a young student, if you were beautiful or not, or even if you were in your eighties. If you knew how to cook, you could compete to become Israel’s next Master Chef.

Auditions attracted housewives and househusbands, religious and secular, young and old. Presentations were made of tasty dishes that could have been served in gourmet restaurants and some that embarrassed the viewers, more than the contestants.  It also was nice to see that a former coworker of mine advanced through the early rounds of selection with a salmon dish that she prepared.

As the final lineup of contestants began cooking through tasks requiring them to show their creativity and presentation skills, we began to accept them as regular guests in our homes, urging them along and being shaken almost to tears if their dishes didn’t turn out right, or if the judges criticized them too cruelly. When words of praise were awarded to the best efforts, we couldn’t help but share in the pride of these truly talented chefs.

What raised this program to a level higher than other reality shows was the fact that all the participants, contestants and judges alike, came across as being very human. We felt deeply for them without the need to dig to actually taste their culinary skills. We began to really know these people, ordinary Israelis like ourselves, as we welcomed them into our living rooms week after week.

We cried with the elimination of Gili, a doctor who was the last woman contestant on the show. We encouraged Emanuel, an El Al pilot with extraordinary skills in the kitchen. We rooted for wedding gown designer Elihab, as his creative cooking imagination nearly gave him the title. But more than anything, we applauded Avi, the 35-year-old reformed drug addict from Jerusalem who managed to turn his life around and who found renewed love for life in the Moroccan cooking of his mother’s kitchen.

When Avi became Israel’s next Master Chef, we couldn’t help but cry with him, feeling that in a very real way, we were part of his family as well.


  1. Terrific post, Ellis. I love your insight regarding the humanness of the contestants -- precisely what I'm drawn to in books and films.

    Speaking of contests, you won mine! ;) I can't offer you your own cooking program, unfortunately, but I do have $15 certificate with your name on it. I'll email it to you and post your blog on Twitter (@AugstMcLaughlin) promptly!

  2. Thanks August! For those of you reading this blog, please meet August McLaughlin, a Los Angeles nutritionist and health writer. I am anxiously awaiting the publication of August's thriller debut novel, In Her Shadow.