Top Chef: Less Shock, More “Survivor”

Top Chef: Seattle had its first “real” episode this week (there was a weird sort of prelim episode last week).  The episode description said that it would feature “a game-changing surprise twist” and the episode was titled “A Shock at the Space Needle.”  Spoiler alert…the big surprise?  Three contestants from past seasons would be joining the newbies and competing with them in challenges.

Also known as: the same “twist” Survivor had this season.

This is not new for Top Chef.  I’ve always thought of it as “Chef Survivor.”  I don’t watch Top Chef for the food; I am not a big fan of food.  I probably wouldn’t eat most of what they make, and the technical aspects of what the contestants are doing are way out of my kitchen experience.  The reason I watch Top Chef is because it is a very well-executed reality TV show.  It’s so good, it knocked The Amazing Race off its 7-year Emmy streak for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.  Top Chef is just fun to watch.

The show manages this, however, by “borrowing” heavily from other reality TV series.  The producers know how to make such a show work – Magical Elves Productions is also responsible for Project Greenlight, Project Runway, and Top Design (among other series).
Top Chef is a liberal serving of Food Network programming with a dash of America’s Next Top Model and a heavy sprinkling of Survivor.

The biggest difference between the two shows:  Survivor is a social competition, where the contestants vote one another out, whereas Top Chef is a skills-based competition, where the contestants are evaluated by a panel of judges.  Survivor premiered on CBS in 2000 and Top Chef came along six years later on cable.  Aside from those major differences, the episode format is very similar.  Generally, there are two Challenges per episode, and the losers of the second challenge are up for elimination.  Rewards and Immunity exist in both shows, and are granted to challenge winners.

The area in which Top Chef is most obviously mimicking Survivor is in its use of returning players.  Survivor had its first “All-Star” batch in season 8 (Spring 2004), and other reality shows quickly copied that trick.  Top Chef: All Stars happened to be season 8 of its series.
In 2003, Survivor first made it possible for eliminated contestants to reenter the game, and then made that a regular staple in both 2011 seasons (Redemption Island).  True to form, in November 2011 Top Chef did the same (Last Chance Kitchen).

And then comes this fall, when first Survivor and now Top Chef are featuring three returning players.  Top Chef is a little behind the ball – Survivor did this with two players in 2008 and both 2011 seasons – but made up for that by jumping straight to three rather than two returning players.

Look, I don’t mind if Top Chef borrows the best of other reality TV shows.  I know this genre has a lot of inbreeding, especially when it comes to twists. I watch Top Chef because they’re so successful in how they put it all together.  I just wish they would be a little less blatant about it.  A surprise twist is not so shocking 4 weeks after another TV show did the exact same thing.  Have some tact.


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