It may not seem like it, but this evening brings one of my most eagerly-awaited television events of the year. I speak, of course, of the season finale of Top Chef: All-Stars. Or, as I like to call it, the greatest reality show on television. No, really.
I'm not sure how I started watching Top Chef, to be honest. I'm not a foodie - Hell, if anything, I'm closer to the exact opposite, given the amount of foods that I have an irrational dislike and/or outright fear of - so it was probably the competitive nature that drew my attention when it first started back in 2006 (Well, that or the deluge of trailers that probably heralded its coming, accompanying early seasons of the once-good Project Runway). It's true that each season of the show has only ever been as good as its contestants - just like any reality show, really - but somehow, Top Chef has always managed to have at least a couple of characters that you end up rooting for no matter what, as well as having a set-up that actually rewards something resembling talent more than scheming, networking or whatever other shenanigans are possible in shows such as Survivor, The Apprentice or, I assume, The Bachelor (I've never watched, I'm both ashamed and proud to admit).
But what makes this season of Top Chef, the "All-Stars" season, so great, is its gimmick: Fan favorites from previous seasons are back, competing not only against each other - we're used to that - but themselves, and the stories that they've built up about their previous appearances. It's like Emotion-Plus, with eliminations carrying extra weight and surprise emotional meltdowns from people cracking under the strain they've put on themselves (Seriously, Jen's meltdown was amazing, considering how professional she'd been the first time around). Plus - and here's the kicker - we as viewers are far more invested in each contestant from the start, because we're already familiar with them and have our favorites. Not for nothing am I so glad that Richard Blais has made it to the finals, having felt since 2008 that he deserved the title (Also an interesting experience: Growing to like chefs that I'd previously been cold towards: I may be Team Richard, but I was happy that he's up against Mike Isabela in the final, considering how hard Mike has been working the last few episodes. Okay, I don't want him to win, but still...).
True, it's formulaic television (As evidenced by the number of shows that could be described as "Like Top Chef, but for [insert other occupation here]," my favorite of which is undoubtedly Works of Art... but that might be my art school background coming out for a second), but Top Chef has taken that formula and taken it to ridiculously enjoyable, incredibly watchable levels: Professionals doing what they do best! Dramatic interpersonal relations and the struggles therein! And food that looks so good that even I am curious what it tastes like! How could any other television show possibly compare? Tune in tonight to find out what it's all about, and also for an accurate predictor of my mood tomorrow if Blais doesn't take the win.