Thursday, January 06, 2011

Top Chef - A Character Study

So some of y'all may know that I'm a pretty big fan of Bravo's Top Chef series, and in watching their most recent season - the All-Stars, with favorites and almost-winners from previous seasons - I've started to consider it as a character study with one particular central question: do people change?

In fiction, there are different schools of thought about this. Some authors will tell you that character transformation is necessary for a piece. Others (probably a minority) will tell you that people don't really change, and there are stories written specifically to illustrate this point. I'm sure there's also a middle ground of folks who believe that "real" people don't change, but it's necessary for compelling fiction.

So let's look at the evidence as pertains to Top Chef:

(Warning: spoilers ahoy, if you follow the show and happen to be behind.)

There are several chefs who were infamous, whether for fits of temper, backstabbing, snide remarks or just general personality dysfunction. Some of these chefs appear, at first examination, to have matured this season. Marcel seems more relaxed, less melodramatic, and more open to team play. Dale - whose most memorable moment in his season comes from slamming a piece of equipment hard enough to dent it - has become more quiet and less contentious.

But looking at this last episode, Marcel wonders if Mike won because the judges still had traces of his dish on their palette, and Dale cusses out his colleagues extensively in the interview box. So I'm led to wonder if there's been less a change of personality and more of a growing awareness on how to harness emotion and practice diplomacy - crucial elements for a chef in the kitchen.

Spike, easily one of the biggest game-players in his season, takes an undeserved loss with relatively good grace. Mike seems to have tempered his arrogance into confidence, but we'll see.

Then there are chefs who were fan favorites ... who have faded this season. Jen seems to have lost her touch in the kitchen and traded it for a higher level of aggression. Jamie, who was one of my favorites in her season, seems to have just fallen apart. Fabio, charming to the point of making his faux-arrogance entertaining rather than irritating (usually), seems to have gotten a lot more sour and grumbly - though some of that is the same old hyperbole. If these were characters, you'd be asking what happened in their lives to trigger this change.

Antonia seems to have gained confidence and poise in the kitchen - whether that extends to leadership (which is what got her kicked out in her season) remains to be seen. Carla is still the serene zen-artist she was, though she seems to have gotten a bit less ... ahem ... kooky. She learned a lot from her Top Chef finale, I think, about staying grounded and true to herself. Richard is as experimental and level-headed as ever, but for the first time, I'm actually hearing him snark a little at the other competitors. I don't think it's mean-spirited - if anything, it's deserved - but it's new. Is it a change in him, or is the environment?

The hypothesis I come down to, looking at these real people (as presented through a slanted TV lens, of course), is that perhaps people don't change, precisely. Instead, the same essential personality evolves through time, experience and circumstances. People don't lose their basic outlook and impulses, but they learn to temper them or perhaps get enough proof of different points of view to stop and consider.

It's food for thought.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. Formal personality testing seems to indicate that people don't change.

Anonymous said...

Now I have the urge to go into an extensive review of Asperger's Syndrome and the nature of resisting change that seems buried in the personalities of people with it. That aside, I'd love to say that people can change, out of self-interest. But I think you're more on the mark, that experience, etc., tempers and hones a person through time.

Lindsey Duncan said...

And yet that change is so ingrained into our expectations of fiction, some readers will complain if they don't see it ... it's an interesting dichotomy.

It gets into the semantics of what a "change" really is, too. If your actions are different, but they stem from the same motives, is that change or not?

Oof. ;-)

Lindsey Duncan said...

I also don't necessarily think I can (or would want to) debunk that people can change ... I just distrust lightning conversions.

Diana said...

Whether a character changes or not in a story depends on whether it is a character driven story or a plot driven story. Take the two story types quest and adventure, plotwise they are similar in structure; the hero goes out into the world, does something, then returns home. In the quest story type the story is about how the character reacts to what happens to him. In the adventure story, the story is about completing the adventure.

In real life, people can change if they are strongly motivated to do it and/or they experience a traumatic event or a significant change in their life. Once one reaches adulthood, most people don't change. They don't have a reason to do so.

I don't watch Top Chef, but my guess as to the reason the contestants have changed or not is based on their basic nature and whether they were motivated to change based on their previous experience on the show.

This is an interesting exercise for a writer. Good post. :)