For one thing, it appears that most of the finalists can actually cook: The judges were at least reasonably pleased with almost all of the dishes in both challenges, and actively liked an unusually high percentage of them. Even Vic's two unplated dishes looked like they would've been good if he'd gotten them to the judges.
For another thing, it looks like there are really some stars there, unlike some previous seasons when it seemed the FN team had to work hard to fluff someone up enough to be a plausible winner:
- Orchid is obviously off to a hot start, though I wonder if she'll suffer for being too similar to Season 6 winner Aarti Sequeria. None of it should matter, of course, and I'm sure their culinary POVs are entirely distinct, but TV is a visual medium, and I wonder if FN wants to take on the challenge of promoting a second consecutive short, plump, cheery Asian woman cooking Americanized ethnic food? Then again, perhaps my instant sense of deja vu will dissipate as the season goes on and I get to know Orchid better.
- With her friendly face and luminous smile, Whitney could be the next Rachael Ray... and she has a culinary resume Ray doesn't pretend to have.
- Even though she seemed like a bit of a hot mess in the opener, Alicia turned out great food (Penny's snark notwithstanding). Given that she's a former model and an instructor, it's hard to imagine her initial fragility will prevail: Both professions should've prepared her to deal with rejection, criticism, and media exposure.
- Among the guys, I like Jeff, probably just because a show devoted to sandwiches — "... make any meal a sandwich, and make any sandwich into a meal...." — sounds like one I'd watch. He's not off to a stellar start, but I'm rooting for him to step it up in the coming weeks.
- Finally, I agree with the judges that Justin B. has great potential: An intriguing look, a thoughtful approach, and clearly strong culinary chops.
The last thing that pleased me about the premiere is that they got the elimination right, when there was dire risk that they would not: Vic's failure to plate a complete dish in either challenge (or anything at all in the elimination challenge) put an obvious target on him, and Jyll's (why am I thinking that's not the name — or at least not the spelling — her mother gave her?) explanation of why her individual dish didn't get plated sounded like a weak excuse. But weak or not, Jyll was right: Howie's constant need for assistance (caused, IMHO, by his lack of basic kitchen competencies) really did screw up Jyll's game, and that, in turn, caused the collision that put Vic's calamari on the floor. Howie's failure to step up and admit what really happened was bad enough; his attempt to (falsely) discredit Jyll and minimize her credit for the group dish was disingenuous and despicable. I always wonder on these shows whether the judges get to see any of the kitchen footage before making their decisions. Normally I assume they do not, and in this case I was afraid their lack of awareness would lead them to the wrong decision.
Thankfully, it did not. Now if the truly frightening cougar-in-leopard-print Penny goes home next week (and really, I think the judges are ready to pull the ripcord on her if she says "sexy" even one more time), I'll be a happy viewer indeed. But enough about me; what do y'all think?