Rocco’s Dinner Party
First up, as it so often seems to be the case when I about to write about a Famous Person, let me offer a disclaimer:
Choosy Beggars (Tina and Mike) has nothing against the person of Rocco DiSpirito. We (Tina) view him with a great deal of respect and we (Mike) have not often thought about him either way — good or ill — too terribly much. It is therefore very important that whatever we (Mike) may have to say about DiSpirito’s new show, Rocco’s Dinner Party, it should not lay asunder the remote possibility that if we (Tina) were ever to meet him, we (Tina and Rocco) might become bestest of friends.
Therefore, let us (Tina) be clear that what we (Mike) say about Rocco’s Dinner Party is a statement about the program rather than the individual, who we (Tina) find dreamy.
Now, with that said, on to the show!
Rocco’s Dinner Party is another product of the Bravo Food Show factory, who have brought us such insanely popular items as Top Chef, its innumerable geographical and spiritual spin-offs, and that one show about cupcakes. As such, the show does not fall far from the figurative tree, and shares many of the same elements as its spiritual predecessors.
For instance, over the course of an hour at Rocco’s Dinner Party, you can expect to see familiar sights like:
- A diverse group of contestants from a mixture of backgrounds
- A tightly time-constrained challenge that results in immediate elimination
- A different theme in every episode to keep the concept “fresh”
- A group of judges that runs the gamut from pleasantly-attractive actors all the way to pleasantly-attractive celebrity chefs
- An elaborate showdown that puts two skilled players head-to-head preparing a final meal
- The phrases, “This is a really difficult choice” and “I think we have our decision” in every single episode
- A victor who, notwithstanding any doubts expressed over the course of the show by any judge, is praised and celebrated as the Real Deal
Of course, Rocco’s Dinner Party also brings some freshness to the table, specifically in the way:
- It happens at Rocco DiSpirito’s house.
So that’s something! But all snarkiness aside, for all those people — and there are an awful lot of them — who enjoy the Top Chef formula, Rocco’s Dinner Party is here to help you in a highly condensed way. It’s sort of like Top Chef of This Afternoon at Rocco’s Place, in the way the show compresses everything down to its most essential.
First, the stage is set for the viewers.
A significant amount of energy in Rocco’s Dinner Party is invested in establishing his credibility as a knowledgeable, wealthy, handsome and all-around intimidating — yet approachable! Wouldn’t you love to be at one of his parties? — guy. This is understandable, because he has to act as the sole judge of a competition that would normally take an entire season of Top Chef to plow through.
Yes, that’s because he gets to take on three contestants, hold what is basically a Quickfire challenge, and then dust one of them from the line-up before the first commercial break. It’s kind of a puzzling choice, considering how many relatively complex things follow in the ensuing forty minutes, but DiSpirito digs in with relish — he dispenses faint praise and Hard Truths very comfortably, and establishes himself as a judge sufficiently hard-assed that when this moment comes…
…the two surviving contestants feel the appropriate mix of joy and dread at the prospect of moving on to the next phase of the show. And this is where it gets a little too bifurcated to hold together. Because on the one hand, there’s the introduction to the theme, including the requisite uncomfortable dialogue between the show’s host and people whose heart rate has yet to descend after an elimination.
And on the other hand is the arrival of the guests, an odd concoction of familiar Top Chef and Food Network faces and oddly B-list cable TV actors. When the show shifts to them, the tone changes gears so abruptly that you can practically see the transmission in the rear-view mirror.
Gone is Rocco the Fearsome Judge, and here is Rocco the Handsome Host, singing the praises of the guys in the kitchen and expressing something like anticipation for what they come up with. All of which is fine, I guess, if there was even the faintest hope that he was sincere, but instead it comes across as weird.
The two moments are broken up by an odd segment where we are introduced to “New York’s most famous party planner”, whose unenviable job is to take the vague concepts coming off the contestants’ heads and turn them into compelling dining environments. The less said about this the better, because while it seems to be a significant factor in the judging, it’s not at all clear what contribution the chefs actually have towards the end product — did they dream up the tchotchkes that the dinner guests take home, or did the planner? Was it their decision to hang scarlet from the walls? Who sourced that old brass trombone? Wouldn’t you like to know?
Great! Because the judges are here and they want to talk about how excited they are to have a fabulous evening.
Now look, I know Kelly Choi needs work. I don’t spite any of these people their airtime or their appearance fees, and there needs to be some way for DiSpirito to demonstrate to the audience that he’s only being brutal because That’s How Chefs Are. But the whole moment just lays bare too many of the devices of the show, hanging the whole thing off of DiSpirito’s ability to shift back and forth between affable host and intimidating head chef.
Not that Rocco fails in either task, but rather, he’s asked to go from one to the other far too quickly. Worse yet, it seems to happen by design — part of the formula appears to be that while each contestant is preparing their meal, Rocco and his most-honored guest pop in to the kitchen to scare the shit out of them.
There’s a reason that the judging panels of Top Chef, or even tighter shows like Chopped, work as well as they do — it allows for the show to connect with the broadest range of feelings in its audience, while not appearing too manipulative. It is conceivable that there will always be one judge who seeks to crush a contestant, one who wants to be supportive, and one who is willing to be convinced. That’s what makes it so satisfying when a particularly triumphant (or especially disastrous) chef comes along and makes a unanimous impression on everyone, judges and audience alike.
At Rocco’s Dinner Party, the conceit is that while there are many dining, there’s just a single client evaluating the success of each event. Locating that in one guy, even one as dapper as DiSpirito, exposes just a bit too much of the show’s manipulations. More importantly, it makes the viewer feel a bit icky about watching again: either Rocco is insincere as a smooth and unflappable host, or he’s uncomfortably good at being a hard-hearted creep-on-demand to the chefs. Either way, there’s a funny taste left behind.
And thus, even when a deserving chef succeeds…
…it isn’t quite as fun for the audience, however satisfying it may be for the contestant.
Rocco’s Dinner Party is a funny one. It has the basic recipe of the Top Chef shows, but gets a little too clever in the number of roles it tries to collapse — no slight to DiSpirito, but while there are definitely aspects of the Top Chef template that could be adjusted (or deleted), having one person be the Good Guy, Bad Guy and Jury isn’t one of them.
Rating: 3 Roccos out of 5