A chocolate fondant sits on a plate, wobbling as though it is nervous. “You and me both,” I think, sympathising with a pudding. I am at home, on the sofa, my dinner balanced precariously on my lap, as it has been every night since March. The fondant on the television in front of me continues to tremble. I’m gravely concerned about its structural integrity.
Then I inhale sharply. A spoon in a disembodied hand strikes the dessert to reveal its innards. I lean closer to the TV in order to understand the fondant’s fate. Will it be death? Stodginess from careless overcooking? A liquidy mess after a panicked, premature removal from the oven? Or – could it be? – smooth, rapturous, indulgent glory?
Gregg Wallace’s face appears, looming, open-mouthed. He takes a bite, and at once his eyes widen as though he has just seen through the fourth dimension. “That,” Wallace says, his aspect directly comparable to that of the Churchill dog in the throes of a life-altering religious experience, “is DEEE-LIGHTFUL.”
I sigh out of genuine relief. It is the best news I have heard all day.
I live in a flat with my friend Joey, where I would estimate that we endure the ups and downs of MasterChef, the long-running BBC cooking competition show, at least five nights a week. We were not always this way – in March, as the pandemic really took hold, series 16 began airing, and we decided to follow it for a bit of levity. Then, once the series was over, we found that nothing else satisfied us in quite the same way. We missed its low-key oddness and its stupidly small-time stakes, which spoke to the lockdown-addled brain like little else.
So we just started to watch more of it, all the time. Right now, we are wading through two separate franchises of the format. Sometimes, we watch MasterChef: The Professionals, currently on the BBC three nights a week. This is the version of the show where real chefs volunteer for the ritual embarrassment of forgetting how to make a pancake on national TV, their brains reduced to porridge under the withering glares of decorated restaurateurs Marcus Wareing – a man best described as like Van Helsing if he had a Michelin star – and Monica Galetti.
On days when there are no new Professionals offerings, we just play old episodes of the flagship series, which sees amateurs compete for a trophy and the opportunity of coming back to slag off contestants’ food in subsequent years (to me, this is the greatest prize in all TV.) We watch it on Netflix, we watch it on iPlayer: there is no other choice. I am at a point now where I simply cannot – will not – be without MasterChef, or the palpable, hysterical fear in co-host John Torode’s eyes when he describes something someone has done with a turnip as “disturbing”.
It is, of course, completely unsurprising that this preoccupation has afflicted me in 2020. It has been a year when we have turned to the telly in droves, practically begging it to distract us from both the strangeness of the real world and our own unchanging, locked-down living rooms, which have become as irritating in their overfamiliarity as estate agents who say your name at the end of every sentence.
Netflix says that it added 26 million subscribers in the first half of 2020 alone, and some of the year’s biggest cultural phenomena have been TV shows that have emerged from the platform: Tiger King, The Queen’s Gambit, season four of The Crown. Elsewhere, people have been revisiting the greats, or taking the opportunity of an order to stay at home to catch up on programmes they missed the first time round. The youth culture website that I work for, Vice, has seen a spike in content about The Sopranos because so many people have used their respective lockdowns to catch up on such all-time classics.
In my household, however, the only show that reliably hits just right is MasterChef. I like a prestige drama as much as the next person, but the pandemic, which – on top of, you know, the unmoving sadness and sense of loss – has mostly been defined by feelings of strangeness and boredom, has called for something else.
British TV, at its best, I think, is always slightly odd and off kilter. It’s what accounts for moments like someone from The Wanted dressing up as Homer Simpson on Strictly, and the “celebrity busts” challenge on Bake Off. This banal, everyday weirdness is the only entertainment that has seemed apt for my overactive mind and general sense of quiet abnormality throughout the pandemic. Indeed, the only images I’ve seen that come close to expressing “where I’m at, mentally” are MasterChef’s slightly-too-long shots of Torode standing behind the contestants, just staring at them.
Ultimately, MasterChef is god-tier pandemic viewing because it gives me what I need: a vague sense of the unhinged, the chance to shit-talk someone’s beurre blanc, and the ecstatic rush of a perfect chocolate fondant, at the end of a day where there really wasn’t much else to get excited about.
Lauren O’Neill is a culture writer for Vice UK