Maybe I shouldn’t have watched PBS’ Marple: The Blue Geranium on my DVR immediately before last night’s episode of The Next Food Network Star, but I can’t help but feel as though the show’s producers were engaged in a poorly disguised game of subterfuge. How else to explain the absence of Serena from the bottom three, despite her weak, semi-homemade attempt to rethink the pineapple upside-down cake? Or the suggestion that Aria’s reinvention of the pig in a blanket as a piece of fried shrimp with caviar and creme fraiche was anything other than ridiculous? (As Bobby Flay so succinctly put it: “You threw the pig out the window.”)

Oh wait. But without those unexplained phenomena, how else would the producers convince us that the show’s sixth season is anything more than a formal procession that will end with the coronation of bubbly Indian-food expert Aarti? Granted, her rice was a little dry last night. And maybe her bottom-three placement is the judges’ way of reminding her that she can’t get complacent, that the stakes are too high to aim for a midpack finish on even a single dish. But all that aside, I’m hoping The Brief and Not Entirely Believable Setback of the Aarti Party Express will only have a one-week run before the curtains come down. The only potential snafu might be if Aarti’s brush with elimination adds another tablespoon of self-doubt to her dish; honestly, why was she so worried about matching the “glamor” of the Frank Sinatra estate when she’s in a competition dowdily dressed folks like Tom, Herb, and Aria?

Oh, and while we’re sidestepping into fashion talk, I’d like to add that even if Brianna hadn’t been sent home last night, her beastly outfit at the judges’ panel — black, one-shouldered hoisery on top; blue lycra sausage casing on the bottom — should’ve been banished to the In-Sink-Erator. As it was, though, the woman whose personality was the culinary equivalent of sweet-and-sour sauce (hold the sweet!) finally snarled her last snarl. It’s a shame she never found the “joy of storytelling.” As the judges noted, had the competition been solely about food, Brianna might’ve already wrapped up the win. Her fresh crab and brie bake looked like a luscious reinvention of tuna-noodle casserole, even without the burnt mushrooms on top. (Anyone else wonder if some Food Network production assistant sprinkled a little lighter fluid over Brianna’s porcinis when she wasn’t looking?) But in the end, Bob, Susie, and Bobby probably couldn’t see the commercial viability of a show called Cooking With Utter Disdain. “On today’s show, we’re making food for a five-year-old’s birthday! Don’t you just loathe children? I do, too! So let’s set their tiny mouths on fire with a dish I like to call the Chorizo-Jalapeno Mouth-Bruiser! Serve ’em up, watch the kids start gasping and begging for glasses of water, then knock back a glass of champagne and see which one cries first! Now that’s a party game everyone can enjoy! Aren’t I totally hot, BTW?”

If I were on the selection committee, however, I’d have given Brianna one more week and sent home Serena. No matter how many stories she has of sitting on an earthen kitchen floor (clad in a handmade peasant dress) in the Italian countryside while her late grandmother (who looked exactly like Sophia Loren) and her mother (who possesses the Goddess-like charms of Monica Bellucci) made sauces using vegetables plucked from their backyard garden, warmed and plumped by the glorious Tuscan sun, it doesn’t mean that I want to learn how to make Serena’s gluey tower of store-bought dough and pineapple slices.

Nor am I interested in Herb’s culinary point of view, which seems to equate “healthy” with “unappetizing.” I mean, is Food Network really going to give a show to the guy whose dishes have a 50 percent chance of making Susie Fogelson crinkle her nose and say “This does not taste good”? And yet continuing in their deluded belief that Herb is a “front-runner” — which means that in still photos, Herb possesses the muscular good looks of someone who might potentially be an appealing on-air personality — the judges seem to be trying to steer him from “Energy Chef” to “Cuban Chef,” which should buy him another two or three weeks of turning out inedible dishes while experiencing extreme mood swings every five-to-seven minutes and working through his childhood issues. Fun!

As I see it, the only viable alternatives to Aarti are Tom and Brad. (Oh, and maybe Aria, if I can stop forgetting she exists.) Tom, however, makes the kind of amateur mistakes that undermine his expertise. Sure, I laughed when he declared his grill looked like “a lobster massacre,” but who’d be daft enough to follow his directions for cooking such expensive shellfish when you know Ina Garten’s recipe will inevitably turn out better? And while I know the selection committee likes specific anecdotes from the chef’s lives, I think Tom might be better off leaving out ones that include back-to-back-to-back references to divorce, death, and his lonely grandma drinking herself into a Sinatra-slurring stupor. Let’s not even get started on Tom’s other verbal gaffe: “I just like to play with myself.”

And then there’s Brad, the only chef to actually reference a specific Sinatra track while presenting his food, and the only one who appeared remotely suave and relaxed in front of the judges. I am thrilled beyond comprehension that Bobby finally put the kibosh on the youthful chef’s off-base concept of a show called The Pro by correctly pointing out this would be a tricky concept even for, say, Alain Ducasse, let alone for a guy who’s paying his dues on a basic cable reality show. Nonetheless, I remain mildly perturbed that Brad’s response to Bobby’s advice that his show concept “take advantage of who you are” was essentially a wide-eyed “BUT WHO AM I?” If you’re going to live up to the title of The Next Food Network Star, your shtick can’t begin and end with wearing a jaunty cap 24/7. If Brad is smart, maybe he can build a show around visiting four-star restaurants, spending time in the kitchen with their chefs, then presenting simplified versions of their signature dishes that shave off time and expense for the at-home cook.

What did you think of this week’s show? If you had to pick a contestant to upset Aarti’s inevitable win, who would it be? Or are you in the camp that says Aarti’s win isn’t inevitable at all? And who’s your pick to go home next week? I vote Serena! Share your thoughts in the comments, and to get all my TV musings, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

The Next Food Network Star
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