Darren Franich
July 28, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EDT

Image Credit: Greg Gayne/FOXTo judge from the comments on the Hell’s Kitchen recaps, this hasn’t been a bumper year for the angry-cooking show. All reality series have off-years: the contestants don’t gel, the competitions feel repetitive. But the main problem with HK is its star: Chef Ramsay has seemed a little bit checked out this season. That’s a bad thing, since a good deal of the show’s charm comes from watching him invent new ways to insult people. So even though there are some flaws in Ramsay’s new show MasterChef, it’s a genuine treat to see Ramsay fully invested again. He seems to be enjoying himself, even when he’s being an absolute [EXPLETIVE DELETED].

First, let’s talk about what works. My colleague (and fellow HK recapper) Keith Staskiewicz pointed out that MasterChef feels like a genuine celebration of food. Since the MasterChef contestants are everyday people from across the country, the show naturally presents us with a polyglot series of cuisines. Some of these, like the adorably excitable Michael’s Korean recipe for pan-seared duck breast, looked incredibly tasty. Others, like Chris’ Beer Cheese Soup, looked like a beautiful heart attack.

The main thing MasterChef has going for it is the judging. This is one of the most instantly appealing trio of judges in the (short) history of reality competitions. For one thing, they’re all capable of intriguingly complex decisions. Graham Elliot Bowles seems a little bit like the Paula-esque “nice” judge (he liked the Beer Cheese), but he can be as dismissive as any of the food critics on Top Chef Masters. And Joe Bastianich is a revelation: hilariously abrupt and dour, he’s like the food-nazi version of Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. It says something about the tenor of the judges’ table that Chef Ramsay was often cast in the role of the Nice Guy, as when he gave one contestant’s son the Magic Apron.

My only real gripe with MasterChef is that the sentimentality can sometimes hit implosive levels of full-on treacle. Tracy was introduced with the full-court-press: a late mother who taught her to love food, an adorable four-year-old son, a soundtrack stolen from The Biggest Loser. A little bit of this goes a long way, and too much just starts to feel exploitative.

To prove I’m not the Grinch, I thought it was adorable when Faruq’s son proudly told the cameras that his daddy was making “Macrimoni and Cheese.” (To prove that I AM the Grinch, I gagged when the judges told Faruq that the key ingredient in all good dishes was “love.”) What did you think of MasterChef, viewers?

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