For those who wonder what reality television would look like if it hadn't been hijacked by drama queens — Gordon Ramsay, Speidi, Jon and Kate, the assorted Housewives — or if it wasn't so obviously and ruthlessly scripted and over-produced, "Come Dine With Me," which premieres Wednesday on BBC America, is entertaining and addictive proof that less is definitely more.
In various British locales — Bath, Swindon, London, etc. — four strangers each prepare a multi-course meal in his or her home for the other three. The guests then score their experience on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end of the hour, and the winner walks off with 1,000 pounds (a little over $1,500). In the next episode, things begin again.
Without a doubt, participants are chosen for their distinct personalities and dramatic possibilities — in the first episode, the Bath Town Crier is set up as a defender of good, plain British food in a world run amok with Asian and African cuisine and in the second, the only male participant repeatedly makes self-congratulatory sexist remarks. But though possessing an unfortunately arch and irritating narrator, each episode involves a different group of people. And as none of them appear to be pursuing a career as tabloid fodder, bad behavior is confined to the occasional tasteless remark or teary retreat to the loo.
"Come Dine With Me" was created by ITV, which produces, among other things, "Hell's Kitchen" and "Nanny 911," and debuted in 2005. The episodes airing on BBC America are cherrypicked — the first two are from Season 4 — and serve as prologue to the upcoming American version. One hopes the American series will remain true to the show's brisk, no-nonsense formula, which does precisely what reality TV can, and should, do best: offer a glimpse into how people actually live their real lives.
The dinners are not set in some soulless McMansion to which the contestants are confined like murder suspects in an Agatha Christie novel, but in each of the participants' homes with their narrow entryways, often tiny kitchens, charming gardens and all their personal touches. (Indeed, in Episode 2, the guests rifle through each host's closets and drawers in a most alarming manner.) Although all these amateur chefs are quite skilled — in the Bath episode, even the self-defined roue knows how to kill, clean and quarter a pheasant — things do go mildly wrong.
But it's the people, rather than the meals, who fascinate. In Bath we learn that, even though they speak of it with derision, the girl who rides and the man who collects sports cars both love scrumpy cider. In the Swindon episode, the garrulous charm of a tiara-wearing doyenne is balanced by the clipped stoicism of a British business manager who tries to mediate between the overly sensitive psychic and a sophomoric retro male.
Were we force-fed a steady diet of these people, they would no doubt become just as tedious, conniving or over-the-top as those Housewives or the participants of "The Bachelor." As it is, we are served up a small number of illuminating, hilarious and often strangely effective scenes — then it's on to the next city, the next group of people.
A moveable feast indeed.