Reality TV and documentaries
The new phenomenon sweeping the millennial audience, Terrace House is a Japanese reality show that, at first glance, will seem familiar to American viewers. Each season, a group of strangers, men and women, move into a house together, where they will live for some time, with their private moments on display for the world. Where American reality shows play up the drama (with moments that seem scripted and editing to emphasize conflict), Terrace House elects to keep things natural. People hang out, shoot the breeze, get to know each other, and just live their lives. Sometimes tensions emerge, but they never feel like the soap opera conflagrations of typical reality shows.
If you love cooking shows but you’re tired of seeing buttoned up celebrity chefs in pristine kitchens, how about a show that examines the food of the people? Street Food travels the world to explore how chefs from various cultures cook street food. The first season focuses on various Asian countries, including Thailand, Japan, and Singapore, interviewing experts and filming the local vendors. This being a David Gelb production, the cinematography is stunning, and the interviews with local chefs add a personal story to the cuisine on display. Come for the entrancing shots of chicken skewers sizzling on a grill, stay for the insights into the rich customs of cultures of Asian cities.
Salt Fat Acid Heat
In 2017, Samin Nosrat published Salt Fat Acid Heat, a cookbook based around the idea that those four concepts are the fundamental elements with which flavor is built. Nosrat’s culinary alchemy is now on full display in her Netflix series of the same name, which follows the chef as she tours the world, exploring the cuisines of various countries and how they exemplify her grand, unified theory of flavor. In each episode, she focuses on a particular country and element: She studies fat in Italy, salt in Japan, acid in Yucatan, and to demonstrate the magic of heat, she returns to California to prepare a dinner party. What’s most striking about Salt Fat Acid Heat isn’t the knowledge Nosrat already possesses — although she’s clearly erudite — but her endless hunger to learn more, to uncover the essential secrets of each and every dish. Just four elements are all that’s needed to build a world of flavor.
When people think of vacations, they likely think of visiting famous landmarks, fancy restaurants, or gorgeous beaches, but some people are drawn to a different sort of exploration. So-called “dark tourists” seek out the macabre corners of the world, skipping the Eiffel Tower and heading straight for the Catacombs, and David Farrier’s travel series Dark Tourist follows the journalist as he ventures into these eerie places. Each episode, Farrier visits a different country, looking for sites associated with death, disaster, even war. In Japan, for example, he joins a guided tour of a ghost town abandoned after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where the tourists bring their own Geiger counters, panicking slightly as they pick up more radiation than they expected. In another episode he visits Medellin, home of drug lord Pablo Escobar, where an industry has sprung up around veneration of the dead crime boss. Dark Tourist is a unique exploration of places and cultures out of the mainstream, and a journey into humanity’s fascination with death and destruction.
Netflix’s documentary series Dirty Money brings together a number of documentarians, including Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest), to delve into the shady dealings of big businesses around the world. Each episode features a different director tackling a different subject, ranging from the outrageous (the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the payday loan industry) to the strange (a massive heist of maple syrup, which gives the filmmaker a chance to examine the cartel-esque nature of Quebec’s maple syrup industry). Dirty Money is an incisive examination of the behavior businesses will engage when nobody is looking — and sometimes, even when people are.
News site Vox has been publishing short, informative “explainer” videos for a while now. Explained, Vox’s new series on Netflix, offers longer, deeper dives into the topics of the day. Episodes — generally between 15 and 20 minutes in length — target a range of subjects, including the evolution of monogamy, the racial wealth gap in the United States, even the rise of K-pop. Explained makes use of interviews with experts, clever infographics, and other tools to convey information, and the show’s breezy attitude keeps even the most academic topics from getting too dry.
Wild Wild Country
The documentary series Wild Wild Country follows a fascinating yet obscure episode in American history: The rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram, a religious community that sprang up in remote Central Oregon in the 1980s and was built around the teachings of a guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The group’s cultish tendencies grated on the locals, and as tensions rose, the Rajneeshees became more militant, attempting to hijack the voting process in Antelope, Oregon, and even staging a bioterror attack. Wild Wild Country makes extensive use of archival footage, as well as interviews with the people who lived through the conflict. The perspectives of the former Rajneeshees are intriguing; many look back fondly on their time in the community. Rajneesh’s lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, is a particularly fascinating character. Expertly crafted and highly informative, Wild Wild Country is a sharp exploration of how cults develop, and why they create friction with mainstream America.
Chef David Chang has built a career on bucking culinary authority, and his Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, finds the restaurateur waging total war on the concept of “authenticity.” The first episode is a great example of the show’s thesis, as it examines the ways in which chefs around the world have taken a simple dish like pizza and reinvented it. Ugly Delicious is less about gorgeous shots of cooking than it is about the way culture shapes cuisine, and the show is conscious of how different styles of food are tied to ethnicity. A conversation between two Italian-American pizza chefs takes a sorrowful turn as they reflect on the disintegration of the old Italian-American communities, and the fact that pizza is more an American icon now. Although Chang is not always on screen, his presence always comes through in the show’s dynamic energy.
In a globalized world, the food industry has grown so large, its networks so long and tangled, that most Americans probably don’t know where their food comes from. As the documentary series Rotten shows, that’s dangerous, because where there is obscurity, there is fraud. The show makes use of extensive interviews with people in the industries, offering first-person insights into these esoteric worlds. From companies cutting honey with other substances, to companies allegedly using forced prison labor to produce garlic, Rotten uncovers depravity in the strangest places.
David Gelb, director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, returns to the world of cooking with Chef’s Table, a documentary series where each episode follows a different chef. With Jiro, Gelb found not only a guide to the art of sushi, but a story of fatherhood and the burden of legacy. In Chef’s Table, he similarly presents the chefs not as mere professionals, but complex people whose lives inform their work. The chefs involved include traditional culinary icons such as Massimo Bottura and new-wave chefs like Grant Achatz. Of course, those who crave footage of culinary grace will not be disappointed. Gelb has an eye for the sublime, his camera drifting slowly, gently across completed plates.
Making a Murderer
Heralded as Netflix’s answer to the hit podcast Serial, Making a Murderer tells the tragic story of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, native Steven Avery. After serving 18 years in prison for a horrific sexual assault and attempted murder crime he maintains he never committed, new evidence exonerates Avery, making him a free man. Now 41 years old and looking to clear his name, Avery sues Manitowoc County for a whopping $36 million in damages. However, shortly after filing the lawsuit, Avery’s name is once again tied to a grisly crime, this time the disappearance and assumed death of photographer Teresa Halbach. Coincidentally, Avery faces the same people who wrongfully put him behind bars in the mid-’80s and yet again maintain his innocence. Incredibly riveting yet downright infuriating at times, Netflix’s Making a Murderer is one of the most fascinating true crime documentaries you’ll find anywhere.
Netflix partnered with the BBC to offer streaming of its smash-hit documentary series Planet Earth. Over the course of 11 episodes, Planet Earth takes viewers to all corners of the globe, allowing them to see the Earth as they’ve never experienced before. From the depths of the open ocean to the jungles of Uganda, this docuseries sheds light on the most fascinating areas of the world. Life presenter David Attenborough superbly narrates Planet Earth’s globe-spanning expedition.
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Bill Nye’s sensational educational program Bill Nye the Science Guy quickly became a household and classroom staple when it debuted in September 1993. During its nearly five-year, 100-episode run, Nye taught a wide range of natural science topics aimed at educating youngsters about everything from the Earth’s core to how the brain works. Nominated for 23 Emmys — and winner of 19 — Bill Nye the Science Guy easily holds up as well today as it did when it aired some 20 years ago.
Netflix’s true-crime streak continues with The Keepers, a haunting investigation into the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun and Baltimore school teacher who was found near a garbage dump in the winter of 1969. The documentary follows the efforts of two of her former students — Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub — as they try to uncover why someone would murder her. The Keepers is no simple whodunit, however. The documentary’s focus quickly expands from Cesnik’s murder to the atmosphere of Seton Keough High School, where it becomes apparent that sexual abuse was systemic, a scandal Cesnik may have tried to stop. Those who want a satisfying tale of justice may want to look elsewhere; those who want to see how institutions can work to cover up corruption will find The Keepers to be a disturbing case study.