Surprise dinners and redecorating make great television

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

The two best shows on cable television are "Trading Spaces" on TLC and "Door Knock Dinners" on the Food Network.

You may disagree, but you'd be wrong.

They're both wonderful because they rely on the element of surprise and the potential for seriously upsetting people.

In the first one, friends or relatives commit to going to each others' homes and assisting interior designers redecorate one room. They can only work for two days and spend $1,000, which, in terms of home improvement prices, sounds like a couple of cans of paint and some throw pillows.

The only rules are that the room be large enough to accommodate a camera crew, you can't discard any furniture before it starts (so they can embarrass you thoroughly with the "before" pictures) and the two parties involved must live in the same neighborhood.

So, for instance, my grandparents and The Other Half could commit to helping in the redesign of each other's living rooms. Of course, the interior designer wields most of the power, but I'd try to prevail upon him or her.

"Would you please throw away that awful green clay ashtray-type thing I made in fifth-grade pottery class? It's hideous!" I'd insist. "My grandparents don't even smoke! In fact, get rid of all this tacky stuff from their grandchildren. Sentimental, schmentimental."

Meanwhile, my grandparents would be at my apartment saying, "Apparently, our granddaughter was under the influence of some sort of illegal narcotic when she picked this shade of yellow for the walls. A nice, bright white would be fine. Or beige."

In the end, the couples get to be together when they see how the rooms have been redesigned. Typically, they are thrilled and jump up and down enthusiastically.

(Have you ever noticed how few opportunities in life there are to shout with joy and jump into another person's arms? So far, I've only found it to happen in professional sports, on "The Price is Right" and on "Trading Spaces.")

But sometimes, they give their friends dirty looks. Especially those New Jersey couples, who are blunt and seem to shy away from modern designs.

"I towld you nat to let 'em touch dat wahl!" one of the women shrieked at her friend.

Her friend lovingly tried to diffuse the situation. "Dat wahl was tayacky," she said.

You have to admire that kind of honesty.

On "Door Knock Dinners," host Gordon Elliott takes a chef to a home selected at random, knocks on the door and asks if the chef can come in and make dinner with any food supplies already in the house. While the chef makes do with what's available, Gordon entertains the household and audience with a constant barrage of wit.

(You avid television watchers may remember Gordon from his short-lived, daytime talk show. The Food Network is a step up, because his upper-crust English accent isn't wasted saying things like, "Lurlene, how do you know Bubba is not the father of your child?")

I am highly skeptical that the houses are selected by chance. Take the last one -- the home of a Long Island lawyer who ran for Congress. In the freezer: filet mignon, cooked shrimp and tortellini. I mean, sure! Who couldn't make a feast starting with that?

Let them come to my house and try it. He'd throw open the freezer to find waffles and large numbers of discount boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Make a gourmet meal out of that, buster! Or how about using the Chicken Helper? We also have several individual cans of store-brand fruit cocktail donated by my in-laws, who got it in bulk.

I can hear Gordon now: "The family is sitting down to frozen waffles with fruit cocktail and Chicken Helper. It looks delicious!"

Anyway, be sure and watch both of these programs. You'll love them.

And if you're interested in having a room redesigned, give me a call. Maybe we could get on "Trading Spaces." I promise not to insult your taste.

Heidi Hall is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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