It might be closer to a burnt pie than a melting pot, but My Kitchen Rules serves up the dish Australians love most: Schadenfreude.
Enough with the cynicism. Those lamenting the return of My Kitchen Rules to our screens need a lesson in gratitude. MKR is an important community service, much more than a mere cooking competition. It is television that channels the soul of the nation.
Strictly speaking, MKR is not an original Australian concept. Readers may recall the 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping up Appearances where the ambitious (but doomed) Hyacinth Bucket would flounder each week in her pursuit of social advancement. MKR is essentially the modern reboot, although the format is different, and the actors are not necessarily aware that they are participating in a comedy.
MKR is a study in leafy suburban aspiration, deftly capturing the anxieties of everyday Australians who are out to impress. The adventure begins with each team taking turns to host an “instant restaurant” in their homes for their fellow participants and esteemed judges Pete Evans and Manu Fiedel.
The cameras are there early to document the flurry of activity preceding each instant restaurant, the urgent last-minute trip for supplies (to their sponsors, of course) and the show’s signature moment: the doomsday chime of the doorbell, signifying the arrival of the guests. It’s showtime. Cue awkward salutations and strained exclamations of appreciation at the restaurant décor.
Strictly speaking, MKR is not an original Australian concept. Readers may recall the 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping up Appearances where the ambitious (but doomed) Hyacinth Bucket would flounder each week in her pursuit of social advancement.
As the host team returns to the kitchen to prepare entrée, the real entertainment begins. Skilful camerawork captures the stilted dynamics of a dinner party in which the combatants are still eyeing each other off, unsure they can share the room with the other inhabitants. The bonding process is usually assisted by the presence of a “villain” who has been included in the group to ensure that the other participants have something to bitch about. Over the nine seasons of MKR, the role of the villain has been cast in a diverse manner, but the type most favoured by the producers is usually a young female socialite with limited self-awareness, a professed love of the finer things in life, and a complete inability to cook. Whether or not this person is actually aware that they are being cast as the villain is one of the enduring mysteries of the show. At least Hyacinth knew what she was getting herself into.
Either way, the role of the villain is crucial because we enjoy being outraged by bad behaviour and our curiosity is piqued by the prospect of the villain meeting their downfall. The instant restaurants and menus may rotate every week, but the main course on MKR is always the same: a healthy serving of schadenfreude. It’s entertaining viewing, and the good news is that you can continue to enjoy it even after MKR finishes its run.
If Pete or Manu ever tire of reality television, they will find that the language and storylines of MKR translate seamlessly into other contexts; a role in Canberra may await. Is Malcolm Turnbull’s instant prime ministership going to be a success? Why is Tony Abbott sharpening his knives in the background? Will Scott Morrison burn the economic pie? Will Bill Shorten perfect his chicken zingers and survive the next elimination? Then there are the heart-warming narratives: Penny Wong’s tears of joy at the success of her special recipe for Same-Sex Marriage; Tim Wilson’s melting moment with his husband-to-be. But the cheese platter soon gives way to business-as-usual and the daily tallying of the political scorecard.
This analogy has two explanations. Either reality television has risen in quality and taken the tone of sophisticated political reporting, or our political reporting has declined in quality and is tonally closer to reality television. Maybe both.
Either way, the similarities are hard to miss: the triumph, the tragedy, the stuff-ups, the nice and the nasty. The solemn judgment of Pete and Manu; the inquisitorial probing of Leigh Sales and Karl Stefanovic. The battle lines are drawn for a new season. I can’t wait to see who wins My Cabinet Rules in 2019.