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MasterChef Junior offers a weekly lesson in being a better person

Gordon Ramsay (center) gets doused with syrup on MasterChef Junior. Yes, this is the kind of thing that happens on this show.
Gordon Ramsay (center) gets doused with syrup on MasterChef Junior. Yes, this is the kind of thing that happens on this show.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The heart of so much great drama is a group of characters whom we can empathize with, whose motivations are easy to understand — even if we fundamentally disagree with what they're trying to do. And then those characters' motivations clash, bringing them into conflict.

Maybe they like each other. Maybe they're even old friends. But for that point in time, they battle, even over something minor. It's the heart of so much great drama because it is something we can all recognize, that point where you need something and somebody else needs the direct opposite, and it turns into a fight.

By that standard, then, Fox's charming cooking competition MasterChef Junior offers some of the best drama on TV. It's a show about a bunch of kids all working toward the same goal, even as only one of them can be named the winner. Yeah, that sounds like every other competitive reality show in existence, but where MasterChef Junior excels is in the way it turns into a weekly consideration of ethics, of what it means to be a good person, both when the cameras are rolling and when they're turned off.

At its best (as it has been for this second season so far), MasterChef Junior is a story about balancing the needs of a community — all of the kids — against the needs of the self. It's about how everybody can work together, even as they're all trying to get a leg up on everybody else. It's enough to make you feel slightly more hopeful for the future of the human race.

And trust me, that is not something often said about reality TV.

Here comes earnestness

The format of the show will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's watched a reality series before. The season began with 16 kid chefs who competed in a variety of cooking challenges. Each dish is judged by the show's three judges (Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot, and enfant terrible of the reality cooking genre Gordon Ramsay), and at the end of the episode, a few of the kids are sent home. None of this is particularly surprising.

But where MasterChef Junior excels is in the removal of sarcasm and snark from the enterprises entirely. There's nothing necessarily wrong with either, but the reality genre has been overdosing on them for so long that MasterChef Junior's earnestness feels bracing. The kids get excited about everything. They get excited about being on TV. They get excited about cooking. They get excited about dousing the judges in syrup (as they did in last week's episode).

Since the earliest days of the reality genre, there have always been contestants on any given show who are clearly there because they think it will be a boost to their careers. Some of the better examples of the form — particularly the early seasons of Project Runway and Top Chef — turned that into the whole reason for the show, to their benefit. But it's not hard to watch a reality show nowadays and pick out those who hope to parlay the experience into a career as being someone who was on a reality show. It adds a layer of crass cynicism to the genre that can be unappealing.

There's little of this sense on MasterChef Junior, even though the eventual prize will ostensibly help the junior chefs begin their culinary careers. They're really just here to have fun and — in complete contrast with every other reality show ever — make friends. They fawn over Alexander, last season's winner, like he was a Greek god, sure, but they seem much of the time like they're completely unaware they're on TV or should be performing for the cameras.

This allows for some lovely, almost documentary-like moments, when one contestant fails and the others crowd around her to offer their condolences, or when the kids congratulate other kids for winning. It's an examination, in real time, on camera, of kids figuring out how to be better people, learning how to treat each other. And you can even see the calculation, because their young faces are so unfiltered. There's the moment of pain when somebody else wins a challenge, followed by the moment when the loser realizes he or she should be applauding the winner like everybody else. It's honest and heartening.

A different Gordon Ramsay

It's also had a great effect on the judges. Ramsay's "let's yell it out" shtick grew tiresome ages ago, but MasterChef Junior finds what amounts to his cuddly side. He still stalks around and tells people when what they're doing isn't working, but he does so in a kinder, slightly more constructive way.

In that way, Ramsay, too, seems to be playing around with the mechanics of reality TV and how he's supposed to appear on it. There are moments when you can sense his restraint, sense that he knows he needs to pull back from saying what he really wants to say and adjusts accordingly. He's even fine with a little on-camera humiliation, as when he gets syrup soaked because the child representing him in a contest cooked the fewest pancakes. It's a more appealing, more human Ramsay, seeming less like a character cooked up in a boardroom and more like the way the man might actually be.

And at all times, there's the knowledge that these kids are battling against each other, but simultaneously alongside each other. The moments of comfort and understanding are what make this show, constant, tiny reminders that these kids are just trying to be the best people they can possibly be.

It's weird to think of TV making someone a better person, but I suspect Fox's surprise success with MasterChef Junior — a show it buried on Fridays last year and only moved to Tuesdays this year after the complete flop of Utopia — reflects the way that it's a true "family" show in how much it offers to viewers of all ages. For parents, there's that refreshing lack of cynicism, a sense that this is a show about kids pursuing their dreams in healthy, earnest fashion. And for kids, there's the weekly course in being kinder and better to your fellow human beings, no matter how much you might want to shout and cry.

MasterChef Junior airs tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern. You can catch up with prior episodes here.

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