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TV Quickshots #13

The Supersizers (BBC; 2007-2009)

The discerning television viewer can generally trust the British to fabricate a strong television concept, execute it with the proper balance and tone, and complete its necessary arc before it becomes stale. This is certainly the case with The Supersizers, a 13-episode series on the history of food in Britain with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Beginning with Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007, The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren and broadcaster/comedienne Sue Perkins immerse themselves in a different era of British history for one week, eating only period-appropriate food prepared for them while also donning period dress and experiencing the hobbies, activities, professions, and social conventions of the time.

Both Coren and Perkins are enormously witty, assessing the often-disgusting victuals and the outmoded customs of periods from the High Middle Ages to the Restoration to the 1980s with razor-sharp dissections. The delightful, laugh-out-loud-funny Perkins owns the program, though, filleting the traditionalist assumptions of women’s roles throughout the UK’s long and patriarchal history while simultaneously puncturing Coren’s inflated, preening chauvinist act (which never really seems to be ironic). It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that both hosts faithfully consume the vast amounts of alcohol their historical counterparts would have drunk and wind up absolutely stewed every night as a result.

But in addition to its high entertainment value, The Supersizers is also a record of undeniable gastronomical progress. The title of the original Edwardian special was a knowing riposte to Morgan Spurlock’s famous personal laboratory experiment documentary chronicling the unhealthiness of a McDonald’s-only diet. What The Supersizers shows beyond much doubt is that whatever criticisms can be levied at the average contemporary Western diet, it remains a definite nutritional improvement over the protein-heavy, hugely-portioned meals of the past, just as our messy democratic social polity remains a conditional improvement over past strictures.

Dinner Party Wars (Food Network Canada; 2010-Present)

Staying on the subject of clever, snide commentary on food and social manners, Food Network Canada staple Dinner Party Wars provides both in spades, though without the historical education element of The Supersizers. Hosted by chef Corbin Tomaszeski and Brit TV presenter and domestic etiquette guru Anthea Turner, the show pits three Toronto-area couples against each other in a reality-game-show literalization of the neighbourly social competitive effort to top each other’s dinner parties.

Corbin and Anthea watch the proceedings as recorded by robot cameras in the host couple’s home and sample the same food served to the guests, nitpicking and judging their cuisine and their behaviour and eventually assigning both the meals and the party presentation scores on a 10-point scale. It’s fly-on-the-wall voyeurism mixed with culinary critique and it’s delicious stuff, mostly. Obvious effort is made by casting to mismatch backgrounds and personalities of contestants to create fireworks, if only mild ones; it is Canadian television, after all, as further evinced by the indefinite winners’ prize of cookware, gold-painted collander trophy, and amorphous “bragging rights” as competition champions. At least they get a tangible prize; contestants on Canadian cable hit Mantracker slog through the bush for a couple of days and aren’t awarded a darn thing for their troubles.

Despite its trademarked Canadian production frugality (and disproportionate implication of warfare that is a tiresome repetition of the competition-show trope), Dinners Party Wars works as well as it does by allowing the running snarky commentary that any engaged viewer provides in their own living rooms to be embodied in the frame of the show itself. In practice, the assessment of the food, the social interactions, and the domestic host setting is thus presented in layers: by Corbin and Anthea in their curbside panoptic chamber, by the dinner guests themselves to the private confessional camera, and then by the viewer, who also critiques the critiques. It’s not exactly Borgesian in scope and sophistication, but such opportunities for nested-doll meta-commentary are few and far between in the generally theatrical realm of reality food competition television, after all.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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