So why hasn't this season been doing it for me? The chefs have, for the most part, seemed quite talented, and other than the continued, cockroach-like presence of Lisa, the top 4 contains the people you would have expected to make it there all along. (In fairness to Lisa, Spike absolutely deserved to go home last night; it's just that there were so many other times where Lisa should have been gone, notably last week when she was at least as bad as Dale and didn't have his prior record of impressive challenge performances to serve as a tie-breaker.) As a believer in meritocracy, I should be okay with how this has all played out, but instead, I'm watching out of habit. Among my complaints with this year:
- 7 out of the 12 elimination challenges have involved people working in teams, or at least in pairs. I haven't gone back to previous episodes to break down whether the total was roughly the same, but it's certainly felt like there have been fewer opportunities for the chefs to shine individually than there were, say, last season. Not only has that led to people succeeding or failing based on the work of others (again, see Dale getting knifed because he was executive chef on a lousy team), but it's prevented the chefs from really standing out on their own. I get that Stephanie's clearly been one of the best chefs, for instance, but I really have no sense of what kind of food she likes to make.
- Along similar lines, these chefs haven't taken a lot of chances. There haven't been many spectacular failures or amazing successes. When they fail, it's usually a matter of poor execution than someone's ambition exceeding their abilities, and when they succeed, it's usually a matter of them executing a recipe they're already familiar with. Richard's gadgeteering is the closest we've come to something really memorable either way, but he hasn't used the gizmos in quite some time (mainly because they didn't always work well), and you got the sense that he was using them in ways he had used them plenty of times in his own restaurant.
- Not a lot of interesting interpersonal dynamics among the chefs. Having the lesbian couple in the house together didn't amount to much because neither of them was very good. The frat guy bonding of the Spike/Andrew/Mark triumverate was briefly amusing, but beyond that, most of the relationship stuff we saw was of the more sour personalities (primarily Dale and Lisa) cursing each other out with such venom that it was just unpleasant rather than entertaining.
- Tom Colicchio seems to be mailing it in. Too many weeks, Chef Tom gives off the impression that he doesn't really want to be judging these same challenges again, doesn't want to have to listen to Padma try to appropriate the other judges' opinions and make them sound like things she thought up on her own, etc. Sometimes, that leads to him seeming bored; other times, he comes across as excessively nitpicky with his complaints. (There are Judges Table interrogations where you can tell he's going to jump down the chef's throat no matter what answer s/he gives, and no matter which of two bad options s/he had to choose during the course of the challenge.)
Still, I'm hopeful for the finale, because the top 4 will have been away from the hamster cage for a while and should have their creative batteries recharged. (See how much better Dale was in the season 3 finale than he had been at any point during that season.) I'm assuming the winner's going to be one of Stephanie or Antonia, both because they've clearly been two of the season's three strongest contestants and because it would allow Bravo to put that "Can a woman win Top Chef?" question to bed, but Richard could smoke up some plate so amazing that he'd make it impossible for the judges and producers to stick to what I assume is the script.
What does everybody else think? Has this season been more appetizing to you? Who are you pulling for in the finale?