TV Greatness: Come Dine With Me
A website is a difficult place to be positive about something. If you’re too enthusiastic and unabashed in your love, it’s perilously easy to terrify your audience with manic intensity. It’s a very short trip from fan to fanboy, from recapper to fanfic author, from having your mother telling everyone about your interblog to having her disavow any knowledge of you whatsoever.
In other words, it is all to easy to go from this:
…before you even know it.
But I’m willing to run the risk this time, because I feel so strongly. Over the last two weeks, Tina and I have been caught up in probably the most enjoyable food-related (or indeed, non-food-related) reality show that we’ve ever seen. One part Blind Date, one part Survivor and a little bit of Iron Chef, it’s a crazy mish-mash of nasty cruel joy. I am speaking, of course, of the incredibly entertaining Come Dine With Me.
Oh God, I love it so much.
The conceit of Come Dine With Me is probably obvious from the title, but since the only thing that makes me happier right now than watching the show is talking about it, I’m going to describe it anyway. Aired either in a single hour-long episode or a collection of five half-hour shows, CDWM assembles a group of four (or five) strangers who all live in the same city, and then makes them each host a dinner party over the course of a week. The menus are presented in advance, allowing everyone to set their expectations and measure up their competition. The guests all visit each other’s homes, enjoy a cocktail (and then countless more), appetizers, a main and dessert, after which they rate that evening’s host out of 10. The highest score at the end of the week wins a £1,000 prize, at the end of the final night.
It’s a simple premise, but the execution gets it bang on. The show is spurred forward thanks to sharp editing and the narration of David Lamb, who fills in details that would otherwise bog down the show, and keeps things light by relentlessly mocking everyone on screen. The tone encourages the audience to do the same, and as each series progresses it’s impossible not to form some form of attachment to the cast.
And the casting is where this show absolutely shines. This isn’t like Survivor or The Amazing Race, where there is a considerable effort to ensure that the Uglies and Normals are balanced out by some mandatory Fit And Beautiful People. Oh heavens, no. Filmed on location in cities like Cardiff, Bolton, Aberdeen, Belfast or Norwich, the contestants are the very definition of average: from PR professionals to nightclub owners, scientists to warehouse managers, these are bad-toothed Brits at their finest. And while the show pokes fun at every one of them, the people themselves are rarely outrightly, cartoonishly bad — quirky, overconfident, perhaps totally oblivious, but not often openly awful. In each group there’s at least one genuinely nice person, one on the borderline of sanity, one who could do with some (preferably harsh) grounding, but none that would make you throw something at your TV.
Even when there is, you have a hard time doing it, because what this show is really all about is how difficult it is to cook for people when it matters. It’s hard enough to throw a meal together when you don’t care that much, and harder still when you want to make a good impression — add into that cooking for strangers, people you might’ve met ten minutes ago who are going to be rating you, scoring you out of ten when there’s money on the line. In under the jokes, the goofy antics of the guests as they spar with each other and wander through the host’s house, there are the horrible moments we all recognize: food coming out of the oven totally raw, the sinking fear that the apple pie was made with salt instead of sugar, the tired faces of people who know their party turned out pretty sucky after all.
On paper it might sound mundane, but there is no justice like a food snob screwing up his own meal, and no triumph like a genuinely nice person absolutely wowing her guests. The show’s pace zips along at just the right clip, catching the highlights of each recipe and lingering just long enough for those playing along at home to throw in their own jabs. This is a show that Tina rewinds, pauses, discusses and yells at more or less constantly — I suspect strongly that it was actually written just for her, and it only took five years for us to find it because she wasn’t ready for how perfect it is.
Come Dine With Me was designed with Sunday afternoon marathons in mind, wine glass in hand and yelling voice at the ready. It is that rare reality show that is bitchy but not mean-spirited, with a premise that is entirely relatable, and an impeccable sense of how long an audience should spend with a set of contestants. In two and a half hours (at most), you can watch an entire cast go through their competition from start to finish, which is just enough to be satisfied without feeling bloated.
It’s currently running in Canada on the W Network (shut up), who are clever enough to hook you with free online episodes of the full first series from Manchester. In the US, some episodes air on one of the Discovery Networks — look for it, because it is good times all around.
Rating: 5 Laura Calders out of 5.