Dinner for Five: The Complete First Season
Wellspring // Unrated // $29.98 // August 17, 2004
Review by Bill Gibron | posted September 30, 2004
Highly Recommended
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Why is the art of conversation dead? It would seem that in a world addicted to such similar circumstances as online chatting and text messaging, we would all enjoy getting together for a little gift of gab. We are notoriously long on ideas frankly, from evocative to idiotic, and are more than happy to blab them to the rest of the planet at will and ad nauseum. But it seems like the media actually frowns on open dialogue, reserving it for policy based pundits and/or meaningless debates. A long time ago, such a limited view on verbalizing never existed. People enjoyed speaking with each other, at length, about any and all subject matter – especially at the dinner table. Indeed, the family meal was the town hall meeting of the household, a chance to catch up on individual activities while laying down the roost's rules and regulations. Almost any gathering of individuals wanting to break bread together used to result in verbal gymnastics and a genuine desire to communicate.

No one knows that better than actor/writer/director Jon Favreau. Using his experience on the Alan Rudolph film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (about the classic Algonquin Roundtable) as a springboard for his own idea, he determined to return the talent for tête-à-tête to the pop culture forefront. His brainstorm? Get together a few of his friends for some lively supper banter, recording and replaying the results. Thus Dinner for Five was born, and has become a must-have résumé item, a place for the famous to be seen and heard. And with the complete first season of the show released on DVD from Wellspring Media, Inc. you too can catch up on the 10 cuisine-based conversations that started it all.

The DVD:
In one of those classic cases of a concept so simple it's amazing no one thought of it before, Hollywood hotshot/independent movie mogul Jon Favreau (responsible for such films as Swingers, Made and Elf) decided that the intimate exchanges overheard at a celebrity dinner party would make for fascinating television. Instead of sitting down in front of a star, camera and microphone in hand, hurling prepared questions and digging for certain dirt, the famous could get together, share some food and basically just interact. A loose, conversational style could be developed, a circumstance in which the exchange could be lead in certain directions, but it would also be allowed to grow and travel independently, directly into any subject path it wanted. The result was Dinner for Five, now in its fourth season as a staple on IFC – the Independent Film Channel. Part family style free-for-all, part insider bitch fest, this classic roundtable of verbal jousting consistently manages to supercede its setup to give us an entertaining look at the lives of famous people.

The first season of this wonderful series in now out on DVD. On the two-disc set, you will find the following episodes, and participants:

Episode 1 - Joey Lawrence Adams, Peter Berg, Kevin James, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Episode 2 - Vince Vaughn, Garry Shandling, Cheri Oteri, Peter Falk
Episode 3 - Christian Slater, Illeana Douglas, Jeff Goldblum, Fred Willard
Episode 4 - Ron Livingstone, Kevin Pollak, Sarah Silverman, Rod Steiger
Episode 5 - Andy Dick, Daryl Hannah, Marilyn Manson
Episode 6 - Sean Astin, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin James, Ray Romano
Episode 7 - Saffron Burrows, Faizon Love, Michael Rapaport, Sarah Silverman
Episode 8 - Jennifer Beals, Adam Goldberg, Seth Green, Dwight Yoakam
Episode 9 - David Cross, Famke Janssen, Denis Leary, Martha Plimpton
Episode 10 - Juliette Lewis, Sean Combs, Vincent Pastore, John Leguizamo

While not the most incisive interview show ever created, Dinner for Five is still some pretty darn fantastic television. It's the cult of personality epitomized, a casual conversational chit chat that's success hinges on the very elbows balancing on the table. When it stumbles, it does so with grace and humility. And when it soars, it's a joy to behold. Creator/moderator Jon Favreau has come across a perfect combination of fame and freedom, giving friends and acquaintances a chance to open up about themselves while delivering the kind of "performances" the public wants to see. This means that Marilyn Manson will be both adroit and insane. Sean Astin will name check his family while hinting at the future success of The Lord of the Rings (he could not possibly have known then what a worldwide phenomenon the trilogy would be). And the late, great Rod Steiger will continue his balancing act between professional thespian and certifiable loon with appropriate etiquette. As the subject matters vary and the tone shifts from serious to stupid, Dinner for Five even manages the impossible. It becomes interactive, inviting you to sit down next to a star and share in the stories and issues they want to address.

Right out of the gate, Dinner for Five found its groove. The first episode, featuring Joey Lawrence Adams, Peter Berg, Kevin James, Jeanne Tripplehorn is indicative of the show's style. Favreau has worked with almost everyone he dines with (he will eventually replace Kevin Bacon as the new 'six degrees of separation' centerpiece) and the connections lead to their own ends. On-set anecdotes are followed by deeper insights into the world of show business. Dirty laundry is aired and disagreements addressed. By the end, personal proclivities and faceless foibles see the light of day, and as the dessert approaches and the coffee is being poured, Dinner for Five launches into conversation hyperspace. Individuals who barely knew each other before the meal started have become fast friends – or better still, instant enemies – and the sparks fly fast and frequently. Keeping the melee centered and focused is left up to Favreau, and for the most part, he plays his part perfectly. He occasionally interjects a correction or a comment, smoothes over the ruffled feathers of his proud peacocks, and never once casts a judgmental eye, even as a joke is dying or a discussion turns twisted (see Episode 5 for future warning reference – any co-mingling between Andy Dick and a certain shock rocker should be avoided at all costs). The result is a resplendent 30 to 50 minutes of entertaining, engaging interaction between famous faces.

Don't be mistaken, though. This is not some open book, let one's guard down peak behind the curtain into the private lives of actors and actresses. More times than not, the public persona is still in place (Ray Romano is still a schlub, Denis Leary is permanently pissed). But every once in a while, the facade falls and a real human being appears before our eyes. Peter Falk tears up in sadness when discussing his good friend and independent film icon John Cassavetes. Vincent Pastore does the same when discussing his dying mother and her guidance in the pursuit of a 'late in life' acting careers. For every moment of forced tomfoolery – Vince Vaughn vamping on everyone in the restaurant, Adam Goldberg kvetching to beat the band – we get honest moments of truth. Perhaps the best example of this comes in Episode 7 featuring Saffron Burrows, Faizon Love, Michael Rapaport, and Sarah Silverman. As the two Jewish performers (Rapaport and Silverman, in case you didn't know) discuss the favoritism and reverse racism presented to "their people" in Tinsel Town (basically, how those in charge try to undermine Jewish performers who are too "ethnic"), the big black broadness of Faizon Love stares in stunned disbelief. Not only is he marveling at a subject he claims to not know even existed, but also he seems to be waiting for acknowledgement that, when it comes to getting the short end of the starring roles, African American's have had the far worse deal. Naturally, the conversation turns to the ebony vs. ivory elements in Hollywood and a kind of understanding is reached. It is moments like these that keep Dinner for Five from being a puff piece celebration of professional friendships. It's a series that actually wants to say something special and astute.

Of the 10 shows here, there is not a single bad episode. Some are, certainly, more successful than others - old timers Falk and Steiger definitely glamorize their installments - while a couple seem lost in the translation from subject matter to show (for all its filmmaker fussing, Episode 8 is rather dry). There are also a few themes that develop over the course of the season. Favreau and crew occasionally empanel their project with an eye on specific circumstances (a movie he has in common with his guests, a similar story of starting out, etc.) and there are consistent references to the films Rudy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (oft-discussed cinematic benchmarks for the host). And though they rarely deteriorate into gossip, there is still a great deal of soul bearing going on, especially among the actresses (Juliette Lewis, Martha Plimpton and Illeana Douglas each seem to come complete with their own angst-ridden agenda). We sense that, if allowed to, we would indeed get some juicy tidbits about certain film, co-stars and crewmembers (Michael Rapaport's sarcastic comments about director Howard Deutch are a hoot). From entertaining projects that never see the greenlight of day, to focusing on the personal pressure of being performer, Dinner for Five is an excellent showcase for members of the media to open up about their life, their limits and their individual longing.

At its core, this show is really about the lost art of conversation. It's embroiled in the desire to redefine the talk show as it simultaneously celebrates the traditional amusement of good company. Favreau is a perfect host; self-depreciating, opinionated and witty. And his setup is a masterwork of simplicity. In our celebrity hungry pop culture universe where everything, from home improvement shows to political campaigning has a famous face and/or angle, it's nice to see a series that strives to bring the subtlety back to the ballyhoo. Sure, we watch and absorb Dinner for Five because it is a chance to see the rich, powerful and compelling discuss life in the limelight. And we also hope for a little humility – or humiliation – along the way. But in the posh restaurant settings of some of LA's (and, for a couple of shows – New York's) trendiest digs, Dinner for Five ties on the feedbag as it lays out its own food for thought. We never once feel like we're being left out. This is the kind of show that invites us in as well, giving us a chance to experience what so few only dream of. No, not a dinner with a celebrity. Actually, it's something far more important: an opportunity to sample the rebirth of the joy of conversation.

The Video:
Utilizing high-end production values and a focus on mood lighting and setting, Dinner for Five has amazing visual appeal. The 1.33:1 transfer on this DVD is fantastic, capturing all aspects of the meal, from outstanding cuisine to tired, talented faces in perfect color correction and contrasts. Video faults like flaring and/or bleeding are nowhere to be found and the deep blacks and depth of field provide incredibly detailed images. While some of the direction can be annoying (lots of quick cuts, and extreme close-ups) the overall presentation is near perfect. Dinner for Five looks dynamite.

The Audio:
As with any talk-based series, sound is of primary concern. Luckily, Dinner for Five delivers on its Dolby Digital Stereo promise. The voices are perfectly modulated; crystal clear and mixed to blend with, not blot out, each other. There is also a distinct violin/guitar based theme music that runs through each show, and every time it makes its presence known on the soundtrack, the series bumps up a few aural notches. This is a show that sounds as good as it looks, especially when transferred to DVD.

The Extras:
While the bonus features here are not stellar, they do round out the series quite nicely. First, each show can be viewed in either a "normal" mode or a "commentary enhanced" version. What this means is that you can watch Dinner for Five with or without text-based trivia superimposed over the screen. A good example of how this works comes to play in Episode 5. Michael Rapaport was supposed to appear with Andy Dick, Marilyn Manson and Daryl Hannah. Turns out, Michael's good friend and independent movie maverick Ted Demme had just died. The two were playing basketball together and the director simply keeled over from a massive heart attack. All of this information is never mentioned in the show itself (which actually goofs on the no-show) but in the enhanced episode, we get respectful explanations of everything that happened. Mostly, the gimmick is used to give details on movies being referenced and obscure shop-talk indulged in by the actors. But overall, the conceit is clever and adds an additional element of information to the DVD.

Each of the 10 episodes also features a bonus segment, a portion cut out of the original show (either for time or flow issues) and presented as a quasi-deleted scene. While they are all interesting, few are vital. The rest of the extras are borderline basic filler. There are three outtakes, each one odder than the next. Basically, Kevin James chokes, Favreau flubs a few promos and Sarah Silverman lights up a little 'wacky tobaccy'. We are additionally treated to a brief bio and filmography for each guest who appears, as well as a write-up on each restaurant featured (including the location and address). It would have been nice to know what everyone was eating during the shoot (some of the meals look incredible) and there is some introductory material recorded for an IFC Thanksgiving Day marathon (featuring Favreau along with co-producer and A Christmas Story star Peter Billingsley) that really should have been included here. But, overall, the packaging is excellent, doing justice to what is a wonderful television show.

Final Thoughts:
So, some of you may be asking, if Dinner for Five is such an obvious no-brainer, why wasn't it done before. Why did it take Jon Favreau to create a series in which celebrities sit down, share some food and do nothing but talk to each other? The answer has several interesting facets. Back in the old days of the studio system, performers would have never been allowed to open themselves up the way the stars do on Dinner for Five. The corporate spin-doctors would have been in a constant state of scrambling to save face. As the 60s and 70s rolled in and moviemaking became more auteur driven, the need to explain oneself became less and less significant, to the point where several important filmmakers (Kubrick comes to mind) decided it wasn't necessary to have a public persona at all. Yet ever since cinema went digital and the camcorder turned promise into potential, there has been a desire to reach out to the audience, to help them understand the secret society that creates their entertainment. Dinner for Five is part of that position, a real attempt to bring the media to the masses. This is the kind of series PBS would have spearheaded before the 80s saw the government dictating what public television and the NEA could focus its efforts on. So if you don't have the Independent Film Channel, don't worry. Simply go out and purchase a copy of Dinner for Five: The Complete First Season. It will provide a provocative appetizer for the rest of this series' sensational main discourses. Bon Appetite!

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