“Waffles + Mochi,” a food-themed series for children of all ages that began streaming Tuesday, comes from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions – one of the first products of a big slate of programs for Netflix that the former president hopes “won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect and inspire us all.”
It’s no surprise to find them here. The White House may be a bully pulpit, but Netflix is what the world watches; likewise, it’s no surprise that the streamer would want the world’s foremost power couple in its luxury stable. Both Obamas are quite media savvy, and television is an instrument they’ve played expertly in unexpected ways: POTUS out-snarking Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns” to sell the Affordable Care Act; FLOTUS demonstrating Mom Dances with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”
While Barack has been podcasting with Bruce Springsteen – “The Renegades: Born in the USA,” over on Spotify – Michelle, as “Mrs. Obama,” runs a toy-town supermarket, where she oversees a talking shelf (Taleia Gilliam, as Shelfie) and a talking mop (Diona Elise Burnett, as Steve) and tends a rooftop garden where she may be typically found in the company of an officious bee named Busy (Jonathan Kidder). Co-created by Jeremy Konner (“Drunk History,” of all things) and Erika Thormahlen, on whose 2006 independent pilot “What’s Cooking with Waffles and Mousemeat” the present series would seem to be based, “Waffles + Mochi” isn’t formally innovative, like “Teletubbies” or “Wonder Pets,” but rather a well-balanced mix of familiar ingredients: a fanciful set, documentary visits to far-flung places, real kids being real, comical or calming adults, and puppets.
As to our puppet heroes: Waffles is the child of a Yeti and a frozen waffle, a furry thing with waffles for ears; Mochi (Russ Walko, puppeteer; Piotr Michael, voice) is a strawberry mochi ball. (No one will attempt to eat either of them, except for Jack Black, who mistakes Mochi for a soup dumpling.) A squishy ovoid with eyes and a (sometimes animated) mouth, who speaks only in meeps and purrs, Mochi is actually the more expressive of the two, and looks adorable in a crash helmet or wearing spectacles. They come from the Land of Frozen Food, “where ice cream never melts and dreams, well, they get frozen too.”
But they watch Julia Child on television and long for something more, and something more to eat. As luck would have it – there is no more substantial rationale – a truck belonging to Mrs. Obama’s grocery store gets stuck outside their house one day, and they stow away to the snowless city, there to meet new friends and learn about nonfrozen food. “All this food is made of food,” says Waffles, wonderingly, as they enter Mrs. Obama’s supermarket. (The orientation of the show is basically ovo-vegetarian, notwithstanding a passing mention of hamburgers, the “meaty” aspect of umami and a quickly glimpsed piece of already cooked chicken.)
Each episode has a different subject (corn, rice, tomatoes, potatoes, eggs and so on) and a similar structure. A problem arises, possibly of the puppets’ own making – they have poured salt all over the chocolate chip cookies, or broken the last jar of pickles in the store, or stripped the shelves of herbs and spices (and the store of color), having mistakenly labeled them as being free. After chatting with (or avoiding) “Mrs. O,” as she is sometimes called, they set off in their flying, talking MagiCart to learn something or fix a problem. (Their launching is accompanied by the strange declaration, “Listen to your vegetables – and eat your parents,” which is also a line from the theme song, and the series’ working title.)
They visit other lands, for real, including Italy, Peru and Japan – the budget is on the screen – to cook alongside famous chefs and interview food experts, including LA Times food writer Lucas Kwan Peterson. (Also representing Los Angeles are Guelaguetza proprietor Bricia Lopez and pickler Jessica Wang.) There may be a cartoon, sometimes featuring the Taste Buds (voiced by Kate Berlant and John Early), a sort of oral “Inside Out,” or a song. And then they return, report and repair (if necessary) and earn a merit badge. Each episode comes with a kind of moral too, suggested by the subject – potatoes will tell you something about inner beauty, pickles are about patience, salt prompts a conversation about moderation. Everything turns out well. Even mistakes are OK, we are told.
One greets such programs with a hint of suspicion about being fed something that is Good For You but that will taste terrible. As first lady, Obama, who broke ground in 2009 on a new White House vegetable garden, was an advocate for healthy living, but nutrition is only incidental here to exploring taste and culture, history and botany, and learning how ingredients become dinner, in different ways in different places; eating right is the bonus you get from eating well.
There is also the threat of off-putting weaponized cuteness when it comes to kids’ shows – I’m speaking now as an adult who still doesn’t understand why any child ever liked Barney who wasn’t being paid to pretend to – but what’s cute here is mostly pretty genuine. And the more episodes I watched (there are 10), the more I wanted to see the next one. I also learned a few things, including that coriander is the seed of cilantro and the mochi ice cream treat was invented in LA. (Do not mock me for my ignorance; Mrs. O would not.)
Obama is comfortable in this pastel reality, a born kids’ show performer. She has a teacher’s calm, appropriate to the series’ purpose, and a talent for interacting with sometimes overexcitable puppets; she seems interested in what they have to say, and natural in her reactions. Some grown-ups surely will watch just to see her. And “Waffles + Mochi” does offer many of the same pleasures as ordinary travel and food shows – with puppets, so win-win.
It’s not only a kids’ show, but what might be called a Cool Kids show – Lyric Lewis plays the store’s baker, named Baker; Rashida Jones guests as Cheryl from the cheese counter; Barack’s old interlocuter Zach plays a stockboy and “Stranger Things’” Gaten Matarazzo an electrician; Common helps Waffles and Mochi discover their roots; Tan France dresses a potato to bring out its inner beauty (“Are we thinking country, ‘cause you’re an Idaho?”). Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, also known as Garfunkel and Oates, write the songs, at least one of which is sung by Sia. Chefs include Jose Andres, Pia Leon, Mashama Bailey, Motokichi Yukimura, Preeti Mistry and Samin Nosrat.
And finally, there is Lionel Ritchie, turning up for the season finale.
“Are you here to give us a sweet jam?” asks Mrs. O.
“Well I brought some apricot,” he replies.
And everybody dances.
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