British reality TV: genre confusion in ‘Come Dine with Me’

Ami Tian

One fascinating aspect of British culture that I’ve woefully neglected is British reality television. On one hand I’m glad that I spent most of my time in London out of the dorm and trying to see the city; but on the other hand, if I really wanted to experience British culture to the fullest extent, I would watch what they watch on television — or, more likely, on the BBC iPlayer, which streams television on the Internet.

While most of the dramas on television (or at least the good ones — so I’ve been told) are American imports, I was surprised to discover not only that there are many popular British reality TV shows, but that some of them are incredibly bizarre.

I’d always thought of reality TV as embodying typically American characterisitics: spectacle, expressiveness, competition, shamelessness, GTL, etc. Of course I’d known that British reality TV existed (Britain’s “Got Talent”, “Hell’s Kitchen”) but, having never seen any of it (except for that clip of Susan Boyle on Youtube), I’d imagined that British reality TV would be somehow tamer and more dignified.

I was wrong.

As I’ve been traveling throughout the UK, I’ve been introduced to several reality TV shows, including “Come Dine with Me”. What I’ve noticed about “Come Dine with Me” is that it differs from American shows not in that its premise isn’t necessarily less ridiculous, but that its execution is deeply flawed. The British aren’t less willing to embarrass themselves in reality TV; they’re just not as good as knowing how to do it.

The premise of the show is that several contestants compete against each other to host the best dinner party, but the catch is that the hosts are scoring each other: that is, the contestants are also the judges. Each contestant hosts a dinner party at which the other contestants are the only guests. After each dinner party, the attendees give the host a score between 1 and 10. The winner of the competition is the one with the highest composite score.

Surprisingly, for a show about dinner parties, there is little emphasis on the food. Absent are the soft-focus artistic arrangements that you’d find on “Top Chef”; instead the pictures of the dishes resemble those weirdly-colored photos of fried chicken and burgers found in fast food joints. It’s nearly impossible for the audience to form an “objective” opinion of the quality of the food, since we have no panel of experts to tell us what they think.

The contestants, alone, briefly give us their impressions of the night’s success or failure, then present us with a number. There’s no buildup, no deliberation of scores, no suspense. The most puzzling aspect of the show is that it’s unclear what the audience is supposed to be getting from it. What kind of show is this?  Is it a competition show like “Project Runway”?  Or is it a “real people in a constructed situation” show like “The Real World”?   “Come Dine With Me” seems to be attempting to combine both genres.

The most jarring aspect of the show, however, is the out-of-place narration.

The series is narrated by an obnoxious, faceless voice, who sarcastically comments on various things that the contestants do or say. Often his quips are more cringe-worthy than what’s happening onscreen. In some way it’s as though the narration tries to apologize for the behavior onscreen. It’s saying, “Yes, we are aware that this is exceptionally shameful behavior. We’re joining in with the audience in pointing out its absurdity.”

There are various unspoken rules or conventions of reality TV that Americans follow: the suspenseful buildup before announcing winners and losers, and the fact that ridiculous behavior can speak for itself. Imagine what “Jersey Shore” would be like with a narrator, or if a narrator reacted to Tyra Banks’s bizarre and frightening outbursts on “America’s Next Top Model”. American audiences also know that competition shows are never entirely about talent, but mostly about personality; we don’t need to work to integrate histrionics into competitions because we know it already exists. Our genre expectations are clear-cut; we’re familiar with the distinctions between the voyeuristic “Real World” type and the cutthroat competition show. It seems that the British, however, are less comfortable with those distinctions.

Perhaps reality TV is all the same to them: a series of mortifications in various settings, whether it be in the home, onstage, or on the sidewalk. But Americans know better. Reality TV is a reflection of our tastes, our fears and desires. It shows us how we see ourselves, albeit as caricatures — magnified and distorted for our viewing pleasure. American reality TV seems more comfortable with the “reality” aspect of the genre, despite its over-the-top content. Yes, The Situation just referred to himself as The Situation again; yes, this is still real life. And we’re okay with that.