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<I>MasterChef Junior</I>: Is It TV’s Best Cooking Show?

If I counted up the hours I regularly spent watching cooking shows, I'd probably give myself indigestion. And lately, even my favorite shows have been underwhelming. Hell's Kitchen is just a blur of profanity, Top Chef is insanely talented people who have all blended together in a competent James Beard Award-winning way and the Food Network stuff always tends to be quickly forgotten. I particularly thought I'd reached my limit of Gordon Ramsay programming (even though I continue tuning in to Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef out of habit), and yet my daughter convinced me to watch MasterChef Junior with her and I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did this show reinvigorate my adoration of Ramsay as a TV personality but also renewed me hope that we could see more kid-based reality shows that doesn't involve them singing or dancing on America's Got Talent or focus on their parents like Dance Moms. Here are the best things I've learned this season watching MasterChef Junior.

Anything Adults Can Do, Kids Can Do Cuter
It's a staple of most cooking shows to have people running around scrambling to get food out of pantries or fumble with burners and the like, but seeing pint-sized children carry baskets of food that are larger than they are or try to stand on platforms to reach the top of counters is a whole new delightful twist. You've got Dara happily sporting her giant bow in her hair (and not in an ironic hipster way like you'd expect on Top Chef or something), struggling to hold a hot pan and practically giggling with delight when her food landed on the baking sheet and not on the ground. Then there's tiny 9-year-old Sarah -- you could barely see the top of her head as she tried to use a blender or stir anything in a pot. It's freaking adorable and the results were still far better than anything I've ever made in my own kitchen.

These Kids are Cutthroat!
Kid Nation got a bad rap (understandably so), but that show was enjoyable to watch from a pure entertainment standpoint, largely for the same reasons this show is. You get to see kids try and do things on their own without a lot of adult intervention, and you get to see them be a little competitive. It makes for fun television to see a normally smiling tween with a crooked grin trying to figure out which of their fellow chefs they should saddle with a disadvantage in order to better their own status in the game. Instead of waffling with indecision about upsetting someone's feelings, they made it clear that it was a game with big stakes and being friends with someone had nothing to do with getting ahead in the game. The adorably spirited rivalry between Alexander and Troy was my favorite, and I liked that there were always genuine hugs to go around when someone got sent packing.

The Tears
I watch so much reality TV that I've become so immune to people going home, so even if my favorite player is eliminated, I rarely muster up the energy to be truly upset for more than about 60 seconds. But here, I actually felt something (occasionally) when these kids get kicked off, maybe because of their earnest heartbroken expressions. While they may understand aggressive game-play maneuvers (thanks, video games!), the crushing bit of defeat is still a lot for young kids to understand. They just break down, and I have to admit that my hardened heart has shed a few tears on the kids' behalves along the way. And I really admire the way that the judges gave them constructive criticism and encouraged them to keep cooking, instead of crushing their dreams entirely.

The Sense of Pride
Along with the tears of elimination, the beaming uncontainable grins on their faces when they win a challenge is almost unbearably adorable. To get compliments and accolades from acclaimed chefs and the judges is quite the reward for them and they know it.

No Stage-Parenting
We saw the parents at the beginning of the season (and you know they are hovering around somewhere), but thankfully we've been spared the backstage drama. The adults were kept hidden away instead of yelling to their children to put more tarragon in something, and that was utterly refreshing. And I'm particularly grateful that I haven't had to watch a parent come yell at Gordon, Graham or Joe about how they were so wrong about sending their kid packing. That may happen in real life, but thankfully, it's off camera and the focus remains on the kids and the products they put out… as it should be.

Gordon at His Most Likeable
I was worried that Gordon would lose his edge when the kids were around, but he still yells at them about the time and getting stuff done right. He was all over their case during the restaurant challenge. And yet, he does it in a far more endearing way than he ever has on his other programs. Sure, he's helping the people on Kitchen Nightmares, but mostly after knocking them down several pegs. Here he seems genuinely invested in helping to train the next generation of aspiring cooks, and he's having fun doing it. When Kaylen dumped un-whipped cream over his head, he was smiling and didn't call her a donkey or anything.

Actual Incredible Talent
I am always impressed on MasterChef (grown up edition) by how the home cooks have to go from making meals for their families to putting out restaurant quality presentations of not only food, but also desserts. That transition is something that many trained cheftestants on other shows struggle with. I presumed (wrongly) that the kids would be given dumbed-down challenges to contend with, and I was delighted to be proven wrong. These kids have had to bust out elaborate layer cakes and cook with ingredients like snails and they handled it all deftly with some insanely delicate presentations. I honestly have to remind myself at least twice an episode that most of these kids are under the age of 13. I think I knew how to make boxed mac and cheese and maybe a scrambled egg at that age. I would have stared at chicken livers for days before coming up with anything remotely edible, and these kids crank out some amazing culinary creations in minutes.

It's An Actual Family Show
I thought I was going to be watching this to appease my kid, but we both love it and look forward to watching it together. It doesn't make me want to invest in brain-erasing technology like Dog With a Blog and it's not too far advanced for her age like the majority of current 8 PM sitcoms. It's refreshing not to have to watch all of my programming after she's gone to bed. And, as a bonus, it's even encouraged my picky eater to help out in the kitchen and be a little more culinary-venturous... though I don't think she's going to order escargot any time soon.

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