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Anthea Turner and Corbin Tomaszeski are the co-hosts of "Dinner Party Wars".
Anthea Turner and Corbin Tomaszeski are the co-hosts of "Dinner Party Wars".

John Doyle: Television

The decline of food shows - now they're rude shows Add to ...

Does anybody want to eat?

Never mind. If I’ve got the zeitgeist right, everybody is obsessed with eating but, for the most part, eating is a fraught exercise these days. What people do instead is watch other people cook and eat.

There are so many cooking shows on TV that one can lose track. The genre just keeps growing. This summer it seemed that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay took up more hours of prime time TV than any other person. He was cooking and yelling at people, mostly, but it was rarely about the food.

Previous columns by John Doyle

Trends in reality TV come and go. Right now there’s a mania for shows about hoarders, storage and tidying up. There’s also a passion for extreme weather driving or flying. Ice Road Truckers, Ice Pilots and such. And extreme jobs in extreme conditions. Swamp People (a new season starts tonight, History, 10 p.m.) and the bizarre Ax Men, which chronicles the travails of logging crews. Will they shift that lumber before the rain makes the road too muddy?

But it’s food that’s the constant. Anything to do with food merits a TV show.

Dinner Party Wars (Food Network, 10 p.m.) comes back for another season tonight. Like many in this genre, it’s less about enjoying food than it is train-wreck TV. People throw a dinner party and are judged on their skills in cooking and hosting. The producers describe the show as follows: “In this game of culinary one-upmanship, courageous couples battle it out in a no-holds-barred dinner party competition for bragging rights to be named Dinner Party War Champions. Spying on all the action from a secret location, Chef Corbin and Anthea judge food, presentation, and etiquette.”

Yoo-hoo. “Courageous couples” is hardly fitting. Most of the people involved are victims. Some can cook but have truly terrible ideas for entertaining their guests. A representative show sent to me featured a woman who makes music with her nose to keep her guests jolly. The same episode had a guy boasting about eating a can of cat food. It turned out to be pâté, but the magic just wasn’t there.

Come Dine with Me (W network, new season starts Sept. 12) is startlingly similar to Dinner Party Wars. “A lively and entertaining half-hour series that follows five strangers as they take turns creating the perfect dinner party for their fellow amateur chefs.” That’s the W description. Somebody wins $1,000.

In the episode sent to me, a bosomy woman wears a tight top exposing lots of cleavage and goes all, “Check it out!” as she leans over the table. Also, other guests snoop around the host’s house and make sarcastic remarks. You would not want any of these people in your home, believe me. However, unlike Dinner Party Wars, Come Dine with Me only lasts half an hour per episode.

Cake Walk (Slice network, Sept. 7) is part of the cakes-and-cupcakes sub-genre of TV food shows. The upcoming Cake Walk: Wedding Cake Edition is a competition featuring three professional Canadian cake designers competing for a $5,000 prize. Their task is to make one bridal couple's dream cake. The host is actor/comic Caroline Rhea, who dresses in a pink outfit that looks like it belongs on the cake. Teams of couples work on the cake and, of course, bicker and annoy each other.

The main action erupts when the judges start getting involved. They are David MacCarfrae, Alexandria Pellegrino and Gordon Bailey. They make claims that they re looking for “avant-garde” or “rock ’n’ roll” in the cakes. It’s nonsensical. Like the other shows, it’s not actually about eating and enjoying food. It’s a contrived high-stakes game that puts people under stress.

After watching these three shows, the upshot is this – it kind of puts you off the food.

This only a small sampling, of course. They all air on specialty channels, the sweatshops of commercial television. There's all that air time to be filled and cheap, how-to, did-you-know and gee-whiz shows must be made by the dozen to keep up with the demand. Cooking shows are popular with people in the evenings as a soothing alternative to the news. Gardening shows are popular with people all winter long, when they can't get into their own gardens. Anything with animals is popular all the time.

These are understandable TV phenomena. But in the cooking genre, the plot has been lost. It’s not about food, it’s about being rude. Too many of the series are not about the pleasure of eating and the enjoyment of dining with others. There are way too many obnoxious people featured. You meet a better class of person on Swamp People. And the food is probably better too.

Check local listings.

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