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Television

'Top Chef': How Did Such A Great Season Lead To Such An Uninspiring Finale?

Mike Isabella appears in tonight's finale of Top Chef. Virginia Sherwood/Bravo hide caption

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Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

Mike Isabella appears in tonight's finale of Top Chef.

Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

"All-Star" seasons of reality shows, in which past contestants return to play again, have a decidedly spotty track record. They can be great, like season 7 of Survivor, or they can be dreadful, like the all-star season of The Amazing Race that was won by that one guy and that one girl from Team What Were Your Names Again?

The current season of Top Chef started out as an exceptionally good all-star season. They did a good job casting a bunch of people who, in many cases, really did seem to deserve a second chance, and even when what was happening was uncomfortable, it was still really interesting. These are talented folks; it's not Hell's Kitchen, where they can't make a grilled-cheese sandwich without screwing it up. It's good to watch smart people create. Things started so well.

But tonight, as we head for the finale, it's become remarkably hard to care what happens. (So if you're not caught up, this is where you stop reading.)

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The finalists are Richard Blais, who famously flamed out in the finale of a previous season he frequently seemed to dominate, and Mike Isabella, who ... didn't. Mike can clearly turn out some good food, but he's really unpleasant, combining a lot of arrogance with very little of the insight and ideas about food that make the show fun to watch.

What's more, Richard has gotten so frazzled and full of himself that he's not much fun anymore, either. This promising season has built to a finale that's kind of ... well, who cares? Richard was set up as the favorite all along, so if he wins, that's not much fun. But Mike isn't appealing and certainly doesn't seem to actually be the best or most inspired chef in the bunch, so if he wins, that's not much fun, either.

It speaks, I suppose, to the fact that these competitions aren't fixed. If it were me, I'd never have included Mike in the cast in the first place, precisely because he was neither terribly interesting nor apparently terribly brilliant. The risk of including a guy because he's going to stir up a little drama once or twice is that you could wind up with him threatening to win, and if that happens, it may be a pretty unsatisfying ending.