A break in the “MasterChef” formula makes for an all time great episode.

Tonight’s episode of MasterChef was fucking amazing television. The twist was something the producers couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams. In my mind, this is the biggest twist on Australian reality TV since Cosima withdrew from the first season Idol after it was announced that Guy Sebastian had made it through to the final week. Then again, those are pretty much the only reality shows I watch, so I could be wrong. Even though MasterChef was one of the most popular shows on television just two years ago (you should have seen all the tweets), My Kitchen Rules has overtaken in popularity. Last year MasterChef tried to capitalise on the MKR buzz by doing a “battle of the sexes” type thing which put people off the show, and after that failed, they decided to go back to basics, which has resulted in one of the best episodes of the show I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how many people watched tonight’s elimination challenge, but it’s one you wouldn’t want to miss.

When I saw the promo for tonight’s elimination challenge, the narrative they chose to tell was Nicole’s “gamble” and how she was “risking everything”. At the end of the ad, the narrator asked “Will she pull it off?” and my mum replied “probably”. My mum was wrong, but at that change we knew nothing about the episode other than that it would be an elimination challenge.

When the contestants walked into the kitchen, they each had a whole snapper on their benches. My immediate thought was that this was a basic skills test and they had to fillet the fish, but the reality was much more interesting: there were three rounds, and in each round they had to use the snapper. Except a certain number of dishes made it past the first round, and the top five contestants wouldn’t have to cook in Round 2, and by Round 3 there would have only been two or three contestants left.

For the first fifteen minutes, I wondered what this huge twist was going to be. They went around the contestants who talked to the judges about how they were going to cook their snapper, and followed poor Laura as she spend the first third of her cooking time in the pantry looking for capers. Once she’d found the capers, she went back out to the kitchen and the judges talked to Nicole, who announced that she was going to cook the whole snapper in the first round. If it worked, it would be fine, because she would have saved herself from elimination. If it didn’t work however, it meant that she wouldn’t have any more snapper to cook, and she would be the one eliminated from the competition. It was all or nothing, and it was a huge gamble. When she told the judges, the cooking time was half over, and aside from the obvious concern, the judges were worried that she wouldn’t have enough time to cook an entire fish. I looked at the clock and decided that Nicole probably made it through because there were 40 minutes in the episode and they edit it down pretty well.

Ten minutes later I knew I was wrong. Nicole was going to go home. Barely any time had progressed within the show, and with half an hour left there was still the drama of people not knowing whether they’ll be able to get everything on the plate, as well as the tasting and results. I know how this show works. But that didn’t make it any less exciting. There are so few surprises on television any more. A character death is rarely surprising any more (with one particular exception I won’t mention) because an actor’s choice to leave a television show is often announced to the media. And MasterChef is a well established show that follows a formula and is now in its sixth year. This is why this is something the show’s producers couldn’t have come up with. It was a possibility, but it was truly a surprise – hindsight is 20/20. At the same time Nicole’s logic makes sense: if she cooks the snapper really well, she won’t have to cook again and it will have paid off. But the other contestants’ and the judges’ reactions said it all. This is mad. If she doesn’t make it through the first round she’s gone. This wasn’t what the producers and the judges had in mind when they designed the challenge. Nicole went off book. And that’s what’s made it great TV.