BARNHART

Can Michelle Obama's Kids' TV Series Do What Public Policy Can't?

In Waffles + Mochi, the former First Lady uses puppets, cartoons, and celebrity guests to cajole families into eating better.
  • Zach Galifianakis and Michelle Obama with puppet friends Busy and Waffles in Waffles + Mochi. (Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)
    Zach Galifianakis and Michelle Obama with puppet friends Busy and Waffles in Waffles + Mochi. (Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)
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    Like most kids of a certain generation, Michelle Obama watched TV to stave off the eternal boredom of the outside world. She loved sitcoms and still does. The girl who grew up watching The Brady Bunch and Dick Van Dyke Show now kicks back with Schitt’s Creek and Blackish. While her husband seems to use television more as a stimulant — to watch a basketball game or an intense drama like Homeland — Michelle uses it more as a relaxant. “I love watching TV,” she told Oprah in 2020. “I probably watch a little too much TV.”

    In 2018 the Obamas signed a long-term deal with Netflix to produce documentaries and other shows. American Factory already won an Oscar, Crip Camp made this year’s shortlist, and Becoming, based on the former First Lady’s bestselling memoir, is one of Netflix’s most-watched shows.

    And yet it doesn’t surprise me at all that after all that prestige TV, Michelle Obama would star in a goofy show with puppets and celebrities like Jack Black. Because it turns out that Waffles + Mochi is as on-brand as Becoming, maybe even more so. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t that jazzed about writing her life story (few are), but Michelle Obama really, really wants to get kids to eat their vegetables.

    The show is about two puppets, Waffles and Mochi, who travel the world learning about the less glamorous ingredients that their young viewers often find on their dinner plates, especially if they grow up in an aspirational household like the Obamas. Some episodes are devoted to all-American staples like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn, others touch on slightly more exotic items rice, mushrooms, pickles — and still other episodes call out essential ingredients that most adults don’t think of as ingredients, like salt, spices, and water.

    Along the way they encounter various humans, like rice farmers in Peru (yes, the puppets actually are flown to Peru; this is Netflix money talking), celebrity chefs like Jose Andres, and comic characters like the wild-eyed local grocer, played by Zach Galifianakis. Once or twice an episode, “Mrs. O,” as everyone calls her, makes an appearance to check in our two furry friends and see how they’re doing on their latest assignment.

    Some of you reading this may wonder in what alternate universe one of the most famous women alive becomes just another actor on a children’s show, but as anyone who ever attended one of those traveling Sesame Street Live! shows will tell you, five-year-olds are far more impressed with a funny puppet than a woman whose hubby used to be the leader of the free world.

    The show’s theme song has an upside-down refrain, “Listen to your vegetables and eat your parents,” but there isn’t an ironic or non-earnest moment in Waffles + Mochi. It is one of those childrens’ shows written more for the parents in the room, especially the cheeky cartoon shorts that get dropped in here and there. (One is done like a sitcom with canned applause, which anyone under 10 will find baffling.) And the show’s message to parents could not be more clear — it’s OK to demand that your kids eat their vegetables.

    This, of course, is a mission near and dear to Michelle Obama’s heart. As First Lady she inserted herself into the school lunch wars, which go back at least as far as the early ’80s, when a Reagan Administration official classified ketchup a vegetable. More recently, the Trump Administration undid most of the USDA guidelines adopted in the Obama years which forced food manufacturers to reduce the sugar and salt levels in school lunches.

    Mrs. O’s show is designed to accomplish culturally what she could not do politically. When it comes to food, a surprisingly emotional topic, soft power is probably the wiser course anyway. As a community gardener who works to shovel fresh veggies into summer-school lunches, I’m sympathetic to her quest to curb obesity and other diseases related to what we foodies like to call the standard Western diet. And if there’s a theme the show pushes relentlessly, it’s that food doesn’t come from a store, it comes from gardens and farms, some located many thousands of miles away.

    The culinary tips are so-so. Showing how a dash of salt makes chocolate chip cookies taste better is fine, kids do need to expand their palates, but it must not have occurred to anyone that adding salt to a product loaded with fat and sugar completes the junk-food trifecta. And whoever let that Peruvian farmer demonstrate how to cut a potato — with a sharp knife cutting into the palm of the hand — needs to be put on KP duty peeling spuds for the next two weeks.

    Years ago the federal government cajoled the big networks into setting aside three hours a week for “E/I” programming. The letters stand for educational/informational, and the idea was to offset the hours of cartoon crap aimed at kids with something more wholesome. It was a nice idea, but as Michelle Obama has learned, federal power only gets you so far. This well-done childrens’ show is better than any dumbed-down E/I show I’ve ever seen, and will arguably do more to change people’s eating habits than anything the USDA thinks it can do.

    Waffles + Mochi drops on Netflix March 16th.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Waffles + Mochi, Netflix, Jack Black, Michelle Obama, Zach Galifianakis