It’s no secret that I firmly believe MasterChef Junior is the best reality competition series — and the most adorable show on all of television — nor is it a secret that I think the show can make adults feel inferior about own shortcomings. This is true of any reality series where talented children compete, offering both the wonder of watching kids perform impressive feats and the “What the hell was I doing when I was 12?” crises those feats provoke.
Even the latter kind of reaction doesn’t spoil the fact that it’s so much easier to root for these children than it is to root for adults in similar series. I never got into any cooking show before MasterChef Junior, but now I eagerly await each episode. The series has become something of an event within my group of friends; we not only watch together, but also started a MCJ betting pool last season. (I did not win.) The show returned for its fourth season Friday on Fox, introducing us to a new group of tiny but talented chefs who can barely see over their chef’s table but still competently wield mini blowtorches to make dessert. The contestants include Adam, an 11-year-old Brooklyn kid who sounds like a 60-year-old Brooklyn guy reminiscing about the good ol’ days, and Addison, a tomboy who dons a backwards baseball cap and wants to open up a softball-themed bakery.
The season premiere offered all the normal charms: the children got excited over a giant piñata of Gordon Ramsay’s head that contained their prized aprons, and perhaps even more excited about the literal explosion of marshmallows that sets up their dessert challenge. And there were tears, of course, this time from a boy named Alexander who cried in front of the judges because he didn’t think his plating was good enough.
The tears in MasterChef Junior can be uncomfortable. The children are certainly under a lot of pressure, likely facing even more stress behind the scenes than what viewers are witnessing (the children are also attending school during filming), and they have high standards for themselves. Kid-filled reality shows always raise the question of exploitation (think of the understandable uproar around Kid Nation; at least in MasterChef Junior, contestants don’t have to kill their dinner before they bake it) and spark worry over how being on TV will affect the children mentally and emotionally (such as when the tabloids pile on, like with Honey Boo Boo or the Duggars). But crying is quickly quelled in MasterChef Junior, not because the kids are scolded for emotional outbursts, but because the judges regularly and wonderfully calm down the children, reassuring them and even helping them out with their dishes when they get too upset. It’s this — the way the children are treated simultaneously as children and professionals, the feeling of community on the show (the children also comfort each other, and exchange a big group hug when someone is eliminated) — that makes the viewing experience so great, and why we keep returning to it.
This Thursday, Lifetime will expand the kids’ reality competition genre with the premiere of Project Runway Junior. Like MCJ, this series is basically the same as the original version, but with teens (ages 13-17) who are incredibly skilled at fashion design and sewing, and can create an amazing outfit in the time it takes you to change into a few mediocre outfits before deciding what to wear in the morning. It’s another lovely program, and one that will surely do well on television, because it gives you talented, optimistic kids to root for (while also, of course, making you wonder why you never learned to sew at all, let alone make a runway-ready outfit inspired by the New York City skyline).
But even more than MasterChef Junior, Project Runway Junior runs high on emotions that only heighten the viewing experience. It is impossible not to get personally invested in the competition, to maintain the stoicism not to cry or gasp when a favorite is eliminated. And there’s another aspect to the show that only elevates its power and value: as Tim Gunn and Kelly Osbourne have said, these kids are sort of loner misfits in their lives at home — the girls who sew alone after school or the boys who are bullied by classmates for not being stereotypically “masculine.” On Project Runway Junior, these children are no longer outsiders. There, they have the chance to spend weeks with likeminded peers and encouraging judges. They are being celebrated for their eccentricities, skills, and life goals, rather than bullied or outcasted because of it.
Maybe that’s why we love these kids’ reality competition shows. They don’t exploit the way that docuseries do, but instead are full of endless encouragement. Neither is a sugarcoated competition — Ramsay and Gunn can speak sternly — but neither discourages the children from continuing to work on achieving their dreams. Contestants’ dismissals are softened by the judges explaining how well they did, how great their meal or design was, and how they’re going to go far if they keep working. They emphasize to the children that they should never give up. They make the children feel like there is a world in which they belong. That world may not be their high-school classroom, but they’ll find it eventually.