Thursday 21 September 2017

Fear and loathing in the celebrity kitchen! What a bunch of wusses

Party of 10: the 'Celebrity Masterchef' contestants with the two judges
Party of 10: the 'Celebrity Masterchef' contestants with the two judges

John Boland

Extreme fear was the emotion most expressed by the contestants in the first episode of Celebrity Masterchef Ireland (RTé One). "Terrifying," said consumer affairs journalist Conor Pope. "Terrifying," television sports anchor Tracy Piggott agreed, with newsreader Aengus MacGrianna adding "nerve-racking" to the programme's lexicon of trembling trepidation.

For broadcaster and author Maia Dunphy, it was the prospect of being savaged by judge Dylan McGrath that was especially "terrifying" as she thought him "quite an intimidating individual", while middle-distance runner David Gillick confessed himself "scared of" both McGrath and his co-judge Nick Munier.

What a crowd of wusses. And terror certainly wasn't the emotion felt by the viewer – apart, that is, from a growing feeling of panic that the thing might never end. This sensation was at its most acute when the eight contestants were presented with the ingredients for making crêpes suzettes and the hapless viewer had to sit there as, one by one, each of them tried to concoct an outcome that was both presentable and edible.

Comedian Gary Cooke bucked the fear-and-loathing trend with a nonchalance that bordered upon indifference, if not downright weariness. This was rather bracing, though his refusal to treat his task with the required reverence meant that he was the first of the competitors to be ejected. The rest of them will hope to go the distance, if only to further enhance their public profile, which clearly was their only motivation when they agreed to participate in the series.

So why are we being asked to get interested in the culinary attempts of a bunch of celebs (or wannabe celebs) who know no more about cooking, and evince no more talent for it, than the rest of us? Simply because RTé, which seems incapable of coming up with ideas of its own, has bought in a format that has long passed its sell-by date abroad and has given it a lame local spin.

However, all that can be said in its favour is that its two judges prove more congenial company than the obnoxious prats who co-host its British equivalent.

In the seven-episode Top of the Lake (BBC Two), Twin Peaks meets The Killing, with added dashes of misogyny, child abuse and feminist victimhood. In other words, this is a Jane Campion crime drama, though not as pretentious or silly as her biggest success The Piano, which was dismissed by Pauline Kael for its "unexamined feminine smugness".

In fact, Campion seems to be partly aiming for black comedy in this New Zealand-set series, not least in her depiction of a quite dotty women's refuge that sets up camp near the lake of the title and that incurs the wrath of local patriarch Matt (the always scary Peter Mullan) and his psychopathic sons.

Into this sexist hotbed comes Robin (Elisabeth Moss), a local woman who has reasons to fear this outpost but who now returns as a police officer to investigate the attempted suicide of Matt's pregnant 12-year-old daughter. How it will all pan out is anyone's guess, but the compellingly unsettling first episode will certainly keep me watching, not least for the playing of Moss, who shows there's a good deal more to her than the winning Peggy of Mad Men.

And there's always more to Jon Voight than he's given credit for, as is proved yet again with his disturbing portrayal of Boston-Irish patriarch and criminal Mickey in Ray Donovan (Sky Atlantic), the initial episode of which tried somewhat uneasily to tell two stories at once.

The first of these concerned the activities of the titular Ray (Liev Schreiber), the Hollywood fixer of choice for celebrity athletes who wake up to find dead women in their beds or movie moguls who want to learn if their young mistresses are betraying them with other guys.

Ray isn't averse to having it away with these mistresses he's charged with monitoring, but he's essentially a family man, and in this opening episode he was trying to keep his sceptical wife reassured while coping with two loser brothers, one of whom had been abused by a priest. And then, in the second plot strand, Mickey arrived in LA, fresh out of prison but hardly reformed (we first encountered him in the act of murdering the abusive priest) and keen to insinuate himself into his son's domestic life for reasons of his own.

The fact that Ray had always hated him was a complicating factor, but the series seems intent on stressing such complications, both personal and moral. Whether or not they prove fruitful for the viewer remains to be seen, though already I worry about an uncertain tone that too often seems complicit in the sleaze of its storyline. Voight is terrific, though, both menacing and babyish at the same time.

Meanwhile, Dexter is back for its eighth and final season (Fox), with the striking addition of Charlotte Rampling as a shrink who knows all about his serial-killing ways. I've never been a big fan of this transgressive series, but it's expertly shot and edited and reliably nasty – and certainly a lot better than Scandal (More 4), in which Kerry Washington is the chief political fixer of an outfit that prides itself on being run by "gladiators in suits", which tells you all you need to know about an utterly implausible series.

Irish Independent

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