Good Sports

With the baseball season winding down, as usual, I find myself looking for ways to justify that TV in the bedroom. The DVR is set to record whatever episodes of Chopped Junior it can find. The summer Kids Baking Championship just ended yesterday.

If you think you detect a pattern in my viewing, you’re right. I’m finding the cooking competitions featuring kids to be more to my tastes (sorry) than the adult versions.

It’s not that the youngsters are better cooks than the grownups. There’s some overlap, but the adults’ skills are largely more polished and their knowledge of dishes is broader.

The reason I prefer the younger competitors is simple good sportsmanship.

How often does a chef get eliminated on Chopped and storm off complaining about how the judges were wrong to eliminate her, or how the breaks just didn’t go his way? Far too often. Even the chefs who take elimination gracefully rarely shake hands with the other competitors or wish them luck.

By contrast, the kids always encourage each other. During the competitions, they share ingredients instead of hoarding them. When they’re eliminated, they get hugs from their opponents and often say they intend to practice and learn more so they can do better next time.

Sure, some of that positive interaction has to be staged. And when you’ve got six or eight hours of footage for each competitor, it’s easy to pick the best bits for the forty-five minutes that’ll be on the air.

But that’s beside the point. You’ll never see a chef on the grownup version of one of the Baking Challenges stop in the middle of the final round to give an opponent a hug and some good advice–or if you did, the recipient would probably do exactly the opposite, suspecting a trap.

It may be a carefully selected feel-good moment, but when it happens (as it did in last night’s show), the interaction still comes off as genuine. And who doesn’t need more genuine feel-good moments these days?

It doesn’t look like there’s a new kids competition on the fall schedule, more’s the pity. So, as usual, I fill the gap with anime. And I’ve found a show that hits a lot of the right notes–the same notes as the junior cooking shows.

Uma Musume: Pretty Derby (I’ve also seen it transliterated as “Umamusume”) is yet another in the chain of unconventional sports shows. Unlike last year’s favorite, Keijo!!!!!!!!, the sport actually exists. As you may have guessed from the title, it’s horse racing.

The twist is that the horses are cute girls, who perform idol songs after winning races.

Yeah, I know, but stick with me.

The songs aren’t really a major part of the show, at least not through the first few episodes, despite being significant in the world we see.

Where do the horse girls come from? (Note that I’m not using the term “pony girl”. If you don’t know why, I strongly suggest you refrain from googling it. There may have been some artistic inspiration there, but the show goes in a whole different direction.) In-world, it’s made clear that a horse girl comes from a horse mother, but nothing’s been said about the fathers. So if you want some uncomfortable speculation, you can indulge.

But that’s background. We follow a young woman, Special Week, who’s come to the big city to pursue her mother’s dream, that she become the greatest in Japan.

Sounds just like most sports shows, doesn’t it? Where Uma Musume shines is in where it deviates from the sport show tropes. Rivals are competitive, but the rivalry stays on the track. Special Week idolizes the horse girl who turns out to be her roommate, but Silence Suzuka neither becomes Special Week’s bitter rival nor her biggest supporter: she’s helpful, but not to extremes, and it’s obvious she has her own concerns.

And the creators have not only passed on multiple chances to insert fan service, but they’ve given the stereotypical girl/girl love story subtext a miss, despite the many, many opportunities the premise offers.

There are a few wrong notes here and there–Trainer’s habit of “checking his charges’ fetlocks” springs to mind–but the positives far outweigh the negatives in my book.

If you’re interested, the show is available on Crunchyroll. Even if you’re only mildly intrigued, swing by and take a look. You can try the first episode, and possibly more, for free.

Hungry for TV

On Tuesday I suggested that the best way to get through this time of no baseball was to ignore the sport and find something else to do.

And, back in November, I mentioned that my usual alternative TV viewing options had been curtailed by the end of Cutthroat Kitchen.

I’ve been getting by, however. Even with Worst Cooks in America coming off a “Celebrity Edition” (blech!) and now in the between-season gap, I’ve still got Chopped and a DVR full of Chopped Junior episodes dating back to October.

The junior edition, by the way, is more entertaining than the original show. The kids are amazing chefs, and the producers generally avoid the temptation to dumb-down the baskets (I’ve seen several episodes in which the judges seemed to have even less of an idea of how to handle the basket ingredients than the cooks). But the kids are still kids, and the potential for a culinary disaster is much higher with them than with a kitchen of adult chefs who have decades of experience.

But I’ve also got two new shows to fill gaps in my viewing schedule.

They’re both Japanese imports, so you won’t find them on TV. Nor are they available on DVD or other physical media. Not yet, anyway. But they’re both legally available in the US via Crunchyroll, a major imported streaming media venue.

If you fondly remember Iron Chef and think the American remake wasn’t nearly as good as the original, Shokugeki no Soma, known as Food Wars! in the US, might just bring back that familiar glow.

The premise is one we’ve seen more than a few times: young student faces trial after trial as he masters his profession. But the glory here is in the details. Our hero, Yukihira Soma is already an accomplished chef, having been trained by his father since he was barely old enough to hold a knife. Without telling him, his father enrolls him in the world’s most prestigious cooking school (conveniently located in his home town), a school so dedicated to producing top chefs that only ten percent of the students will graduate.
Instruction focuses heavily on head-to-head cooking competitions between students, often with specified ingredients or particular environments–one sequence, for example, requires the students to create a dish suitable for a high-end hotel’s breakfast buffet, and then cook and serve two hundred servings in a short time.

Starting to feel the Iron Chef vibe? Add in the necessary allies and antagonists, some drawn from stock, some quite unique. Toss in an over-the-top approach to costumes, a liberal dose of fan service (surprisingly, not all aimed at a “fighting” show’s typically male audience), and Yukihira’s quest to perfect a recipe that combines peanut butter and squid, and you get a joyful turn-off-the-brain twenty-five minutes per show of entertainment.

The other show I’m watching is Wakako-zake. Like Shokugeki no Soma, the show is based on a manga*. Or, more precisely, the shows are based on a manga–Wakako-zake has been produced in both a live action and animation.

* For those of you with no knowledge of Japanese media, think “comic book”. I’ll save the refinements–and arguments over the details–for another time.

Both versions are available on Crunchyroll (live action, animation) and can be watched in any order. The animated episodes run approximately two minutes long, following Murasaki Wakako, a twenty-something office worker, as she drinks and eats her way to happiness. Each show features a different dish, usually with an appropriate beverage pairing, with tips on how best to eat it.

The live action show runs a more typical twenty-three minutes. Episodes are set in real restaurants–and there’s a post-story introduction to the restaurant and its staff–and there’s also a framing story focusing on her office life that sets the mood for the showcased dishes.

Either way, the show is high-grade food porn. Don’t sweat the plot, just kick back and eat with your eyes.