TV Greatness: Dinner Party Wars
In another life, in a previous relationship, there was a certain predictable pattern to my existence. My girlfriend at the time lived at the intersection of Unimaginative Road and Crushing Control Boulevard, which put my life into a place where at any given time, I could tell you exactly where I’d be three weeks from that moment.
For example, Saturdays? I would be driving to the four malls within a 25 kilometer radius from my home, sitting outside of low-cost women’s clothing stores while several items were purchased, and then sitting outside of different low-cost women’s clothing stores while items purchased the previous Saturday were returned. This was law, more constant than the rise of the sun in the morning or the fall of snow in the winter. It was certainty: No Saturday afternoon should ever deviate from going to the mall.
But hey, sometimes I’d get to go to a video game store, and that would make her pretty mad.
So too it was with television, at a time when I didn’t have a PVR and even if I did it wouldn’t matter, because you can only watch Survivor live and if you aren’t watching it live then there’s no point anyway and why wouldn’t you care about that it’s like sometimes we’re not even thinking the same things and isn’t kind of your job to make the other person happy why wouldn’t you want someone to be happy?
Of course, now I can look back on those days now with some happy perspective, because in sixteen days I’m getting married to a woman who makes apple pie vodka just for the fun of it, who will look at me sometimes and say, “Don’t you have football or something to watch?”, and who is the only person who could have made Marseilles fun. And that makes every single thing, everywhere, better.
So when I find myself watching reality television, I don’t find myself shivering with PTSD and staring blank-eyed at something like, say, Paradise Hotel…
…and instead I’m spending innumerable hours watching something like Dinner Party Wars. And I love it.
That isn’t just because nobody on the show has ever seen the inside of a tanning booth, or even because it’s so delightfully low-budget and Canadian (the prize is $1000 worth of cookware, golly). I mean, it’s gratifying to play “spot the Toronto neighborhood”, and it was a big moment for us when we realized that the show uses the same font as Tiki Bar TV, but that really isn’t what makes the show so enjoyable.
What does make it the most fun really breaks down into a handful of simple things:
1. It’s a spin on an already-good idea
We’ve already talked about how fond we are of Come Dine With Me, in all its forms. Dinner Party Wars is almost exactly the same show, taking a collection of couples and forcing them to entertain each other, with the best hosts taking home a prize. The food is prepared and served in a pre-determined period of time, the guests get to bag on each other and the host in a confessional cam, and everyone gets a score afterwards.
But where Dinner Party Wars deviates, to its credit, is by removing the weakest part of Come Dine With Me — namely, the competitors scoring each other, which invariably led to one or more jerks trying to skew the numbers — and placing that in the hands of impartial judges.
The result is a show that provides all the same fun of the spiritual original, but without the blinding rage-inducing crappery of one contesting wrecking the show by giving everyone a 6 so they don’t win.
Plus, it also helps that…
2. The judges aren’t jerks
At least, not deliberately. Anchored by Corbin Tomaszeski and Anthea Turner, the show is neatly balanced between the hosting antics of the actual contestants and the voice of two reasonably-minded experts.
Tomaszeksi is Executive Chef at Holt Renfrew, but thus far he has resisted the temptation to (unlike many other celebrity Canadian chefs, and we ARE looking you, David Adjey) use a television as his opportunity to be a pompous asshole. Indeed, even as a judge he’s free with his advice and more than happy to tell contestants when they’ve done something really well — all the more noteworthy when you consider the misery on which most reality TV is founded.
Turner, for her part, is just as positive. Acting as a sort of a style-and-manners queen for the show, she’s really there more as a jerk-o-meter on behalf of the audience. For all the footage they show of her measuring the spacing of cutlery or tut-tutting bad table manners, she’s just as often judging the basic decency of the contestants. That is by far what makes her entertaining, as she gets to live the dream of the home audience: punishing the rude and idiotic, rewarding the thoughtful and fun.
Not that they have to worry about it being boring, because…
3. The show doesn’t drag itself out
What made Come Dine With Me so fun was its perfect cut’n’paste structure that could be dropped on top of any random group of ten people. What made it tiring sometimes was that it took a whole Sunday afternoon to get through a single set of dinner parties, which could’ve probably moved with a bit more crispness.
Dinner Party Wars avoids the footage of people buying their meat at the local butcher, or the lingering shots of contestants boiling their pasta while they explain at length the most mundane details of their cooking (our favorite quote was, “I like the water to be quite hot before I boil something”). The cast is also cut down, from five couples to three, which divides up the show quite nicely: six people, twenty minutes a pair, focus more on the party and less on the food prep.
The result is a show that trades off displaying their contestants at their most vulnerable — and really, is there any better word to describe the act of cooking for ten while a camera crew is watching you? — for the sake of better pacing, but it’s a reasonable compromise. The hour moves quickly, and zooms instead on the inherent awkwardness of having to entertain a group of picky strangers, as best as you possibly can, for three hours.
We weren’t sure what we’d get with Dinner Party Wars when we first saw it. There was every chance that it’d be a pale knock-off of a clever idea, but instead it’s like someone really paid attention and took notes: it’s re-balanced, the hosts keep a light and positive tone, and moves quickly to keep the focus on the fun parts.
On TV, Dinner Party Wars airs on Food Network Canada, but full episodes are available online to watch as well. It’s a fun show that’s worth it, and will feed your appetite for home-entertaining-awkwardness until Come Dine With Me Canada starts.
Rating: 5 Laura Calders out of 5.