Judging the Judges of Reality TV

Top Chef judges

The arbitrarily inexact, and often overly coddling, science of judging on competitive reality show undercuts the very premise the competition itself, leaving competitors and audiences scratching their heads.

As recently pointed out by Andy Dehnart on his excellent reality TV blog,, the undoing of ABC’s recent reality diving show Splash was not the hokiness of its premise; nor the dimness of its celebrity wattage; nor even the egregiously unflattering bathing suits worn by the women. No, it was the wildly inconsistent scoring of its panel of two judges.

It had nothing to do with the judges' expertise. Both men are experts in the field: David Boudia (the younger one) is a gold metal-winning diver from the most recent Olympics; Steve Foley (the older one), a former Olympian and the director of USA Diving High Performance. Unfortunately, in their role as judges, they both care way too much about being liked, and so they too often based their scores on a curve that looks less like a bell than a jacked up wavy washboard. They seem to grade more on sentiment than on what they actually saw coming off the diving board. Overcoming one’s fear of heights, triumphing over your age, height or weight (as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Louie Anderson did during the season) seemed to mean more to them than actually having the correct form or entering the pool vertically.

No doubt, their intention was a sweet one and (from what we saw) it never fully pissed off any of the show’s real competitors like Drake Bell or Brandi Chastain. And, yes, it all created a mood that was warm and fuzzy and feel good even if it didn’t work to the advantage of the show--in fact, it completely undermined it, invalidating the competitive nature (and the point) of the program eventually leading one to ask: Why is anyone trying at all? Why are there judges at all? Why don’t we just forget the scoring and just take turns jumping into the pool!

Granted, the judging of diving and many other sports (figure skating, skateboarding, even boxing) as well as the judging of all creative endeavors is always a bit flawed, always a matter of personal taste…but when we amateurs in the audience can plainly see that some competitors are simply better than others, yet the judges can’t (or won’t) mention it, it seriously calls into question not only the point of the exercise/program but its legitimacy too.

That’s why, in the world of reality TV judging, whether we like it or not, we have to give credit to the Len Goodmans (of ABC’s Dancing with Stars), the Kerry Vincents (formerly of the Food Network’s Food Network Challenge) and all the other usually foreign-born, English-accented, tough-love, take-no-prisoners arbiters that exist on this unique subgenre of television.

Dancing’s Len Goodman, his show’s resident “mean judge,” especially deserves credit for standing his ground and fighting the good fight in terms of trying to bring actual excellent dancing to the airwaves. From his central seat on the panel in the “ballroom,” his harsh assessments are met every single week, every single time, with a panoply of collective “boos” from the audience.

The full, unabashed support of the audience for even the most flat-footed hoofer (I’m talking Andy Dick here) is rather heartening but slightly akin to a third grade soccer game—everybody wins! Everyone should gets an award just for showing up!

Though I’m sure Goodman is getting somewhat used to the heckling by now, it can’t be fun to have to constantly shout over the din of outrage that greets his every comment ever week. After all, he’s only trying to do the job he was hired to do. (And I also hope that the network pays him well and provides him with security on his way to his vehicle after each show.)

In the end, it works far more to the advantage of the shows themselves when these judges have the courage to stick to their guns. The judiciousness (pun intended) with which Goodman hands out compliments and offers up his seldom-seen “10” paddle adds an ongoing element of suspense and intrigue to the show, certainly not the worst thing to have in a multi-week reality competition.

The art of judging a reality show is not an exact science nor is it for the faint of heart. But, at the same time, reality contestants, even if they are constantly on the blunt end of criticism, really, have little room to complain….

At the onset of season two of Bravo’s Top Chef, as has become the channel’s norm, the network invited back season one contestants to provide online recap blogs that day after each new episode. Those taking part included season one winner Harold Dieterle, who, one day, spoke out against the appearance the night before of food celebrity and enfant terrible Anthony Bourdain who had acted as one of the show’s guest judges the night before. Harold didn’t hold back: he stated that he had no respect for Mr. Bourdain or his opinions, that Bourdain had never run a restaurant, etc., etc.

It was a surprising post—first, that it came from Harold, who had always seemed quite laid back and easy going on the show and, second, that it was so critical of some of the tenets of a show that has always been known for its quality, respect, and reserve, especially when contrasted with the histrionics of many other reality programs.

Nevertheless, Dieterle’s post inspired an interesting series of follow-up comments from fans that began to call into question the qualifications of the programs other judges, celebrities or not, chefs or not. While the worthiness of “head judge” Tom Colicchio, a chef and successful restaurateur, and long-time judge Gail Simmons, an editor for Food & Wine magazine, were considered above reproach, writers were not as kind to others. Padma Lashke, then beginning her role as host and judge on the hit series, had her credentials quickly put under scrutiny. Padma is pretty and does a good job of hosting and she’s also a cookbook author. But she’s not a chef and had probably never run a restaurant kitchen either, or so many pointed out. Ted Allen, former “food expert” on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, was probably an easy get as he was, at that time, part of the “Bravo family.” But despite his notoriety and on-air food advice-giving, what of his palette?

This debate could easily be expanded to other reality shows as well. Simon Cowell’s music success in this country was next to nil and wasn’t that impressive in England either (if you don’t count one pre-fab boy band and a record produced for the Teletubbies) before he came stateside for Idol. (Besides, to me, Cowell’s criticism always seemed more mean spirited than constructive and more about him than the contestants anyway.) Meanwhile, I still haven’t gotten over the fact that Paula (Cold Hearted Snake) Abdul once judged a singing contest. Still, it was these two who, for several seasons at least, held most of the power in terms of America’s then biggest and most lucrative reality TV talent show.

Other reality arbiters can also be called into question but the point is moot. Though nothing was ultimately resolved in the free-for-all comments section of Dieterle’s Top Chef post, what soon became evident is that reality shows are not The Hunger Games; everyone on Top Chef, Top Model, or Design Star is their by choice. Anyone who wants a chance to collect the top prize that a reality show has to offer has to submit to the wisdom and whimsy of that show’s assembled panel of deciders. If Tyra, Carrie Ann or Padma’s opinions don’t matter to you, then you better just stay at home and watch from the comfort of your couch. If you want to play, you play by the rules--their rules.

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