Jul. 26th, 2010

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Television was the place to be last night.

First, Masterchef. This is the second season of a reality show based on cooking (as opposed to dancing or singing or losing great slabs of weight) and it is amazingly popular. Last night, the final.

Believe it or not, but one of the finalists was a twenty-year old uni student, having seen off dozens of other, far more experienced and knowledgable, contenders. All but one - a 31 year old lawyer.

Last night was the big cook-off, culminating three months of challenges, stunts and eliminations.

Surprisingly, the show is enormously popular, and the supermarket sponsor reports sales increases of up to 1 400% on some items featured in recipes. Spelt flour, for instance, a fresh bag of which can be found in my own pantry.

Everyone loves good food, it seems, and the tensions as the contestants form teams, react to stress, relate to each other and the judges, and ultimately find themselves walking out the door add spice and savour to a series of excellent dishes.

The producers have come up with ways to make and keep the show entertaining. Stunts such as cooking for a meeting of the Country Womens Association (basically farmers' wives) and feeding the experts with such staples as scones and fruitcake. I loved that episode. The contestants formed two teams and had to bake out in the open on trestle tables in a rural setting. Cakes sunk in the middle, jams were runny and the lamingtons lopsided.

The three judges - two chefs and a food critic - really make the show. They are firm, friendly, never familiar, and above all, fair. And entertainers in their own right. The poor contestants have to bear their food to the tasting table, where each offering is dissected, examined and chewed over. Make a hash of your omelette and you'll find yourself on the next limo home. With a television crew in the front seat, capturing every fleeting expression.

Which is where, I think, a great opportunity has been lost. All this cooking, there must be a lot of dishes to wash up. Put the losers slaving over a steamy sink, I say. Better yet, have cameras trained on them as they discuss the remaining contestants. I reckon you'd get some great television once the contestants are off the show and have nothing to lose.

Last night? The lawyer won. He got an early lead in the knowledge test, able to identify platters of spices, rare fruit, sauces and seafood where the engineering student was forced into guessing. The early margin remained the same over a day of cooking boiled down into two hours, changing up and down a point or two, but the contest never really in doubt, given that both contestants handled the remaining challenges with equal panache, reducing the judges to salivating wretches as they sank their teeth into the tucker.

The show is having an influence on the wider world, quite apart from the massive ratings. Last week I heard some computer consultants discussing a new government project. "Well, let's see how it plates up," one said.

The one and only debate of the federal election campaign also took place last night, shown live on three channels, with the timeslot moved forward to avoid a clash over the cooking final.

Not much of a debate, really. Both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader stuck to their scripts, stayed on message, and refrained from either hurling insults at each other or answering carefully crafted questions accurately. In politics, a pointed question is really just an invitation to waffle on about your favorite policies.

An even contest, with opinions as to who won differing according to commentator. I couldn't pick a clear winner, but the party bosses could.

An interesting sidelight was the performance of "the worm". Each member of the studio audience is given a hand control with a knob, and the knob settings are displayed at the bottom of the screen in aggregate. A good performance and the line crawls upwards, or down again when the audience cools. The setting points remain on the screen, forming a wiggly line or "worm".

Three worms last night. A red one for the women, blue for the men, and white for the average. What was abundantly clear was that regardless of policies, the women voters support the female Prime Minister and the men support the male Opposition Leader.

One point I dislike about election campaigns. They are increasingly "presidential", with most of the focus on the party leaders. In reality, the election is for 150 Representatives and 40 Senators, with the party leaders elected only by their constituents. The effect, however, is that all but the party leaders fade into the background at election time.

We're not even voting for the head of state. The Governor-General is appointed every five years, a solid citizen who does nothing much but sign documents and open fetes.

The head of government is merely the leader of the dominant political party, able to be installed and removed by a secret vote in a back room. As occurred only a few weeks ago, when Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd.

The Prime Minister leads a government of twenty ministers, each one responsible for a department or portfolio within that department. Kevin Rudd tried to do all the work himself and ended up doing nothing, leading to Julia Gillard's successful challenge. And now, with the spotlight firmly on her, it looks like she is heading the same way - a goddesslike figure instead of the team leader.

Swollen heads aside, the two party leaders are gifts for cartoonists. Tony Abbot, facing the camera, looks like a taxi with both doors open, according to one wag. Julia Gillard, turning sideways, reveals a long and sharply pointed nose. Under a head of bright red hair. The cartoonists have their work done for them, though of course it doesn't stop Julia looking like an anteater or Tony like Dumbo in the political cartoons.

On the whole, I think it's best to have big ears for listening, rather than a long nose for sniffing into the affairs of the voters.

For myself, I couldn't pick one over the other. Tony Abbott - ex-priesthood candidate - is a little too religious for my taste, but he's also a little more honest than his opponent. Neither of them is my first choice, but as Jed Bartlet is unavailable, one of them will have to do, and honestly, I don't mind too much which one.

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