Sunday night TV

Expat life, at least the way I’ve been living it, seems to be a neverending zigzag between embracing your new home and missing the old one.  And Sunday night on PBS – the channel paid for by public funds and sponsorship – is no exception.

First there is the laughably pompous Masterpiece Theater.  What would you expect in a slot entitled Masterpiece Theater?  I thought, like, Shakespeare; Brecht; or at least something pretty highbrow.  But the answer is, in fact…


Well, Lewis may have been the nadir.  There has also been Wallander, Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey and that rubbish William Boyd adaptation, Any Human Heart.

I suck it all up very, very happily – even Lewis – revelling in a comforting weekly dose of Britishness.  But what is bizarre is that before the episode is shown you have to endure 5 minutes of Alan Cumming (if it’s a Masterpiece Mystery) or Laura Linney (if it isn’t) emoting about how wonderful and culturally wholesome it all is.  I couldn’t find a clip of exactly the bit I mean, but here is a trailer that gives you the general idea.

I was going to say this was a rare example of American cultural cringe in the face of the costume drama, but then I remembered all those Oscars for The King’s Speech.  Masterpiece Theater isn’t really about theatrical masterpieces: it’s about what is conservative, expensive and above all British, and surely that’s what the trumpet music is supposed to convey.  What it actually reminds me of is Nigel Planer’s Nicholas Craig’s masterclass.

Oh well.  After that we move on to possibly my favourite American TV show (vying with The Vampire Diaries, for which I have developed an unhealthy fondness): Check Please.

From what I gather, there’s a move in Britain to introduce local TV, which no one really wants.  But, you know, you would want it if you’d ever seen Check Please.  It’s a delightfully low budget restaurant review show with 80s style graphics; a host, Alpana Singh, who may have overdosed on Botox since she seems to struggle to do more with her face than wrinkle her nose; and three ‘citizen reviewers’ who inflict their favourite Chicago restaurant on one another each week and then review them in the studio with Alpana.

Every week follows a fairly predictable pattern.  One restaurant is either an Italian, or a steakhouse, that hasn’t changed in forty years. Typical soundbites: ‘it’s just good food!’  ‘You won’t leave here hungry!’ ‘The portions are huge!’ And, above all, ‘I felt like I was family.’  (See the review of Viaggio for an example of what I mean.)  It seems that a worrying proportion of Chicagoans go out for dinner wanting to feel that they are blood relations of their waitress.

A second restaurant will be properly fancy and/or hip.  The person who chose this one is generally the most fun to watch: pretentious, looking down their nose at their fellow reviewers who fail to appreciate haute cuisine, and horrified when they have to slum it in the other people’s restaurant choices.  Manase Latu, a sneering peroxide blond, was a classic of this breed, spending most of the programme saying that Chicago was ‘lucky to have’ everything he approved of, as if it was a little charity child that got the hand-me-downs its cooler cousin New York no longer needed.

Finally, someone will choose a restaurant that does an ethnic cuisine and, if you’re lucky, both fancy-pants and I-know-what-I-like-steakhouse-fan will be completely out of their depth there. Mediterranean, Caribbean… almost anything can do the trick. For viewing gold this restaurant should be very cheaply decorated, be in a dodgy neighbourhood, and feature a menu that no one knows how to handle. Still, there is always a risk that here, too, the owners will treat you like family.

Barack Obama once appeared on Check Please talking up Dixie Kitchen, which is really nothing special (there’s a branch in Evanston)… but he’s right about the corncakes.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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