One of the out-of-nowhere reality show hits of 2013 was Fox’s MasterChef Junior, a spinoff of MasterChef that focused on a younger generation of chefs: children ages eight to 13. It was both exciting and adorable, and even people who dislike precocious children and cooking shows (see: me) were not immune to its charms. That’s why it’s surprising it took this long for a similar show to pop up in its shadow (or, at least, another cooking show; Project Runway had a children’s spinoff). What’s not surprising is that Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown is a poor imitation.
Premiering on FYI tonight, Man vs. Child isn’t a bad television show (and it definitely has the better title of the two kids’ cooking programs), but it isn’t totally up to the challenge at hand. The challenge being, of course, showcasing cute little kids cooking seemingly impossibly difficult dishes. It’s also, at least based on the pilot episode, not nearly as much fun as MasterChef Junior.
To keep comparing the show to MasterChef is unfair (though it’s really hard not to), so it’s worth mentioning that it follows a much different format. In Man vs. Child, there is a team of five child cooking prodigies, ages seven to 14, who will go up against a different “prolific executive-level chef” each week in order to win bragging rights. In each episode, there are three competitions. The children decide which one of them will go up against the chef; then, they cook fancy meals and a judge determines the winner. (The third round is judged by a “critically acclaimed master-level chef”; I mostly eat McDonalds and am not entirely sure what distinguishes this person from the rest of the judges.)
The juxtaposition of adult and child chefs can be interesting — “I could win, which would be good,” says seven-year-old Chef Estie; “Winning is the most important thing,” says the adult chef she’s up against. The show doesn’t seem to pull many punches with its child chefs, either — especially in the last round, a blind taste test. Plus, it’s always a good time to root for kids over adults; my favorite moment in the pilot is when Estie finishes her dish early and takes the time to hang out and eat a banana while her opponent continues to race to finish his. To further complicate things, the winner gets to choose an advantage in the net round — options include picking an ingredient to force their opponent to use or making the opponent take a five-minute break during the allotted cooking time.
What’s missing is the sense of fun that’s so apparent in MasterChef Junior. Here, the judges marvel at the kids’ cooking skills but don’t really interact with them or engage them in conversation, nor do they put themselves into the mix (such as when Gordon Ramsay allows children to attack him with whipped cream or syrup). And while the children are all on the same side here, there’s not much teamwork. Rather, the four non-participating children sit on a balcony and quietly watch, occasionally piping up with some short commentary to the camera in the one-on-one interviews.
All that said: It’s also easy to recommend Man vs. Child for the sole reason that it’s a tame cooking show with talented, and excitable, kids at the center. It’s hard to screw up that premise! If nothing else, Man vs. Child is a perfectly palatable offering to occupy summer until MasterChef Junior returns.