Over the past few months, working from home, I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in my obsession with television. I’ve re-watched shows like Cougar Town and 30 Rock. I’ve watched popular shows I’d never seen before like Scrubs and Happy Endings (finally understanding why people are still to this day upset it was canceled!) And I’ve stumbled upon shows that I’d never even heard of; the most entertaining of which has to be a little British show called Come Dine With Me. It’s a game show. It’s a reality show. It’s pure genius.
The premise is simple: 4 or 5 people who live in the same area each take turns throwing a dinner party for the others. At the end of each night – in the taxi on the way home – the guests give the host a score from 1 – 10. Whoever has the most points at the end of the week wins £1,000. The show is hosted by a never-seen narrator (Dave Lamb) and has been on the air in England since 2004 (!).
The show starts by introducing the contestants; the narrator will give some exposition: “First up is Karen, an estate agent from Essex” for example, and then will go through the menu for the first dinner party. The rest of the contestants are introduced, while reading the menu and giving their comments. “Black pudding, as a starter?” or “What on earth is venison – is it lamb?” The show proceeds to show the host preparing for the dinner party, by cooking or preparing the food to be cooked that night. The guests arrive one by one (usually with gift in hand), introduce themselves, and the dinner party gets underway. Each meal has an appetizer, main course and dessert, and can be whatever the host chooses. It is also completely up the host whether or not he chooses to make everything from scratch, or buy things from store to serve – and this becomes a main topic in almost every episode. “Is this shop-bought pastry?” is a common question on CDWM. The diners will take turns in confessionals commenting on the night’s events, and how they think things are going (they’re usually wrong).
At the dinner table, the diners come up with their own banter: “Which celebrity does Kevin look like?” “What do you do for a living?” “Have you ever met the queen?” While the host is preparing the food, the others will have a look around the house, and this often leads to interesting dinner conversation. Sometimes, if they aren’t meshing well there will be awkward silence – broken for us viewers by the narrator yelling “Someone say something!” For the most part, the diners get along and have fun conversations. When one diner refers to another as a fiery dragon (on Couples Come Dine With Me – a topic for another time), or when one asks another if he’s gay because he has a pink refrigerator, it can be a little cringey, but ultimately very entertaining. Even when diners don’t get along, it’s not all that serious, and at the end of the week they just decide to never see each other again.
The food, and prep, is a whole topic itself. I find it thoroughly entertaining to watch these definitely-not-professional chefs prepare meals, and implement what they think are good ideas. Pink unicorn fairy cake for dessert? Sure. Dauphinoise potatoes are apparently on everyone’s menu (We know these as potatoes au gratin, and I don’t know where they’re popular?). There are kitchen mishaps, food burnt, and dodgy cooking techniques that really must be seen, and not described. Though narrator Dave Lamb seems to have a lot a fun describing, commenting and insulting. “Hands!” he’ll shout, if a cook puts his hand in something. Or if something is store-bought, he’ll make a comment like “Well, you didn’t make that from scratch.” It’s a lot more hilarious than it sounds, trust me. The fist clip I saw of the show, which got me hooked immediately, was of a contestant named Tina, who didn’t make anything for her main course. The narrator explains: “Curry from a jar, microwaved rice, and a shop-bought flatbread. This could be interesting.” The diners ask her how things were prepared and she fumbles through telling them that she didn’t actually do anything herself. My favorite part of the night is when dinner is over and after a possibly awkward comment or encounter the narrator yells “Taxi!”, as we cut to the taxicab scoring.
In most cases where the diners don’t like a host’s food, they generally do not let the host know when they’re eating it; they usually wait until a confessional or taxi ride home to rip everything apart – sometimes savagely. But in some cases a diner will harshly criticize a host, then turn around and score them a 7 out of 10. It’s a funny battle between being nice, honest, and cutthroat – this is, after all, a competition. The scoring is based on the diner’s overall experience and seems completely arbitrary, though they all usually break it down into food, hosting, and entertainment. Yes, some hosts provide entertainment for the dinner party; examples: karaoke, salsa dancing lessons, aviation simulation, or a song sung by an X-Factor contestant.
When all the diners have taken turns hosting, the winner is revealed, and it’s the last host’s duty to do so. They bring out the £1,000 cash under a silver cloche, with a scroll that lists the contestants and their places. The host reveals each place, last through first, and the winner gets the prize. In one infamous clip, a salty final host throws a temper tantrum because he didn’t win – Google “Enjoy the money, Jane”. But usually, the show ends happily to catchy (and appropriate) song while the credits roll. Episodes of the show can be found on YouTube and all around the internet, and if you’re a fan of reality shows, cooking shows, or British humor, you should give it a go.
According to Wikipedia, there were 2 failed attempts to bring this show to the US: Dinner Takes All in 2006 on TLC, and Come Dine With Me on Lifetime in 2013. I haven’t seen the American versions, so I can’t say why the show failed here, twice. A few possibilities: either people were too polite and the show was boring, or people were too rude and the show came off as trashy. The show has been exported to over 30 countries, so food with side of snark may just be the true universal language.