There’s an abundance of reality competition shows in which people compete for the title of “best” or “top” something. These battles cover everything from modeling to sewing to, of course, cooking. Still, there are a great many people who could never hope to compete for these honors; and in all honesty, being terrible at something makes for better TV. That’s why Food Network’s latest reality competition, “Worst Cooks in America,” stands out amid an otherwise repetitive line-up.

“Worst Cooks in America”

Sundays at 10 p.m.
Food Network

The premise is simple: Chefs Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan set out to find the worst cooks in America and attempt to teach them a thing or two. To raise the stakes, Burrell and MacMillan break the 12 wannabes into two teams. Each chef will impart their knowledge to a team chosen by the other chef, hoping to prove who’s the better teacher. Contestants will be eliminated weekly, and the final chef on each team will prepare a dish for a food critic who thinks the meal was actually prepared by Chefs Burrell and Macmillan.

The biggest problem with “Worst Cooks” is that the competitive element automatically negates the claim set up in the title. Each week, the chef who does the worst at the challenge must leave. The winner will not, in fact, be the “worst cook” (or even necessarily the “most improved”), and those who probably need the most counsel are booted off early. All the contestants are admittedly awful cooks, but some are clearly better than others. It’d be a shame to see the person who simply adds too much salt to everything win, rather than watch the person who thought peanut butter and cod make a good combination climb to the top.

“Worst Cooks” lacks the biggest turn-off in most other reality competitions centered around demonstrating proficiency in a given field: pretension. The interstitial interviews during which cocky professionals proclaim they’re “the best” and the competition “better watch out” are traded for embarrassed and unconfident amateurs gushing about how they’re honestly just thrilled to have the opportunity to learn. The raw desire for self-betterment shines through, creating a very honest program.

But this honesty doesn’t seem to be what the judges or producers want. Reality competitions thrive on rivalry and the things people will do to win. In the premiere, when one flustered contestant struggled to reproduce a shrimp and clam dish, a fellow “worst chef” came to his aid, causing his own dish to suffer. Rather than having their selfless and sacrificial act admired, they were chastised and both ended up in the bottom two.

While Food Network wants this to be a gritty and intense competition with plenty of fights, it just won’t happen. True, Chefs Burrell and MacMillan exchange loads of banter and are terrifyingly focused on winning, but “Worst Cooks” isn’t about them. It’s about the poor souls who can’t boil water; they’re not going to fight each other when they’ve got bigger fish to fry. “Worst Cooks” should embrace that which makes it different. It’s not about winning, it’s about learning.

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