The best show on TV is Diners Drive-ins and Dives, and it’s not even close. Some people watch TV as an escape. Others stare at the medium as a mirror, reflecting back at them the fragmented pieces of our culture, art imitating life and other high-minded mumbo-gumbo. (‘Southern Flavor’, Denver-style Gumbo, Season 12). Some tune in for the twists and turns of a mind-bending thriller, others for the world-class dramatic acting, some for the cutting-edge humor and others still for the biting social commentary. Well, I’m here to share that Diners Drivers and Dives has it all, and as love-him-or-hate-him host Guy Fieri would declare, Winner winner, chicken dinner.
Half of an experience is planning for it. Like an elaborate vacation to the other side of the world, you take from it only as much you put in. Diners is a show that’s equal parts mindless entertainment and faux aspiration, AKA fauxspiration. I say faux, because I, like most viewers watching from the comforts of their couches, know damn well I won’t be visiting 99% of the restaurants, just like I won’t be moving to the Caribbean after watching a late-night marathon of International House Hunters. More importantly, the producers know that too, which is why there’s a knowing wink-wink when Fieri stares into the camera and implores the viewer to come on by. Each episode sets up the same conceit. Next time I’m in Tuscaloosa, I think, knowing my odds of visiting Alabama any time soon are about as slim as Guy Fieri could have been, had he entered a different profession. It reminds me of the sick days growing up, when I would watch the same morning episode of SportsCenter on repeat so many times in a row that I could recite the pithy repartee between sportscasters from memory. By that same token, I continue watching Diners, even though I know how every episode will go. Even in this age of on-demand TV, while surfing through the channels, I still get a little pang of excitement (and hunger) every time I come across the show.
Diners could well serve as the one constant backdrop of my 20’s. Chronicling my college years, stumbling home late night from the bar, staring stupefied at the screen, shoveling string cheese, stale popcorn and the barely edible into my mouth before passing out on the couch. And onto my married years, stumbling home late night from the bar, staring stupefied at the screen, shoveling string cheese, stale popcorn and the barely edible into my mouth before passing out on the couch.
Guy Fieri, frosted tips, goatee, paunch and all is Americana cooked up in a lab, or more accurately, a greasy spoon on the side of Route 66. Fieri, plucked from relative obscurity after winning a season of The Next Food Network Star, the American Idol of the culinary world, is an embodiment of rags to riches. Perhaps it is only fitting then that he leverages his likeness and influence on the show to highlight the guys and girls next door seeking out their own mini-celebrity. Through pizza or warm apple pie, these restaurant owners, almost exclusively mom and pop, are serving up their own slice of the American dream.
At the same time, Diners allows me to connect to an America that isn’t my own. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox, Jewish home in New Jersey, my childhood, and now adult life is defined as much by what I can’t experience as what I can. No travelling on the Sabbath, and strict dietary guidelines that most notably forbids shellfish, pork and eating meat and milk together. Many have intense opinions around organized religion of any kind, but, the values instilled in me, like faith and family, married with timeless traditions and a rich, layered culture is a way of life I reaffirm every single day (and twice on Saturday). Through my eyes, watching the pit-masters of Kansas City, Missouri, or the seafood savants in Waltham, Massachusetts is a window into forbidden fruit.
With Guy as our tour guide, he brings us into the rural vistas between New York and California not seen from an airplane window. No matter how different peoples’ diets may be, we all have similar qualities that help make up the shared human experience. After all, everyone has to eat. In a country divided, you can learn a lot about different races, customs, and ways of life through the food culture portrayed on the show. When there is so much in the country right now threatening to pull us apart, the harmless, lighthearted nature of Diners, coupled with its universal appeal, is bringing us closer together, one chicken dinner at a time.