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TV Picks: Young cooks, Mel Brooks, screwballs, mascots, Adam Scott

October 31, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Semi-finalist Jack Hoffman and co-host Gordon Ramsay in Fox's "MasterChef Junior," whose first season concludes Friday.
Semi-finalist Jack Hoffman and co-host Gordon Ramsay in Fox's "MasterChef… (Greg Gayne / FOX )

"MasterChef Junior" (Fox, Friday). This small-fry-ification of "MasterChef," hosted as in the grown-up version by Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, ends its first season (of what I hope will be many) this week, with a semifinals-to-finals double header that will earn one talented child $100,000 and a handsome keepsake trophy. Only four, chosen from an auditioning horde of thousands, remain. [Updated, Nov. 3, 1:43 a.m.: It turned out that only the semi-finals aired Nov. 1; the finals -- Alexander vs. Dara -- will take place this Friday. Yay! Another episode!]

There is cuteness, inevitably, but there is also competitiveness -- sharpened by the editing, to be sure -- and just as their elders do, some contestants wear their gifts more graciously and gracefully than others. Although there are manipulated moments and obvious omissions common to all reality series, there is no doubt these kids, none older than 13, know their own way around a spatula. This is also, happily, a show in which Ramsay, a great man of food-themed television when he is not playing an insane person, behaves himself -- even in the literal heat of last week's restaurant takeover, when six little chefs cooked lunch at downtown L.A.'s Drago Centro, to the delighted, moved surprise of the customers.

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Delighted and moved and surprised is how I have often felt watching the show, because these kids not only cook the darnedest things, they do it with imagination and flair and even bravery. (Witness the yucky-food "mystery box" challenge, in which they were called upon to make something out of sardines, kidneys, liver, brussel sprouts and/or octopus.) It's always a treat to behold excellence, but doubly, even magically so in the very young. Too few episodes in the season is my only complaint, apart from not wanting anyone to be sent home, ever. We are at the end now, but interested latecomers can find earlier episodes online.

“Behind the Mask” (Hulu). This charming documentary series from Hulu follows four sports mascots who vary in rank and ability but share a sense of mission and a love of the big fuzzy head: Bango of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks (secret identity: Kevin Vanderkolk); Tux (Chad Spencer), from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a minor-league hockey team; UNLV's Hey Reb (six-term student Jon Goldman); and Rooty the Cedar Tree from Lebanon High School in Pennsylvania (Michael Hostetter).

In the modern mode, the pace is too fast for conversation or contemplation -- the narrative is driven by quick-cut pictures, voice-overs and talking heads -- but manages to make its points and create both memorable characters and a sense of place. It's a life-sized superhero story, in which apparently ordinary folks gain new powers when they put on the costume.

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Vandervolk, an NBA Mascot of the Year, is a daredevil acrobat and self-described adrenaline addict -- "the LeBron James of stunts," one fan calls him -- who works to create crazier effects even as he knows the work will wear him out, cripple or kill him. Spencer, who has spent 10 cash-strapped years as Tux ("I put everything into it"), dreams of moving up to the NHL, for the financial security and "the legacy that I want to leave for my child, so that he can proud of me"; Goldman is looking with dread at the already much forestalled end of his college years and celebrity. And Hostetter, a positive-thinking bullied weird kid whose complexities a phalanx of Hollywood writers could labor a year and never approximate, loves his benighted town and school and its exclusively losing team. "I'm determined to get some school spirit in every event there is," he says, believing that, dressed as a tree, he might dance hard enough to change his corner of the world -- that "the team will start thinking, 'Wow, Lebanon isn't really that bad after all,'" and win.

"Serious Jibber Jabber" with Conan O'Brien and Mel Brooks (teamcoco.com). Man of comedy Mel Brooks, celebrating no particular anniversary but seemingly everywhere this year -- live panels, a DVD set, an "American Masters" special and more -- sits down with Conan O'Brien for a long online conversation. With its black-space set "we stole from Charlie Rose," "Serious Jibber Jabber" is O'Brien's after-hours private club, in which, away from the pressure of a studio audience and ticking clock, he chats with people who interest him -- Judd Apatow, Martin Short, Nate Silver, Jack White, Peter Guralnick -- just because they interest him.

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