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Netflix's Waffles + Mochi, starring Michelle Obama, feels like a carefully designed weapon in the absurd culture “wars”

  • The Netflix kids' food series starring the former first lady "reveals the awkwardness of the marriage between politics and content, which has been playing out in the media in various ways—uninvolved and uninformed people yelling at each other about Dr. Seuss and Gina Carano," says Sonia Saraiya. "Waffles + Mochi feels like a carefully designed weapon in the absurd culture 'wars'—presenting a certain set of values around fresh, culturally diverse, and sustainable eating in a way that makes criticism of it feel inherently absurd. Are the celebrity chefs involved aligning themselves in some way with the Obamas’ technocratic liberalism? Why is Mrs. O’s assistant a snotty bee wearing a tie? Where is this puppet utopia, and does it have universal healthcare? I can imagine that someone might grumpily turn off Waffles + Mochi because Obama stars in it, but I know 20,000 armchair pundits are going to cite this grumpy person as a reason civilization is crumbling to dust. My guess is that Waffles + Mochi will be both well-liked and somehow also commonly reviled, something that is possible in a world that imperfectly amplifies the chattering classes. Which is why I wish Obama had just let it all hang loose in her hosting role, and given us some of the edge and humor that she must have in her role as the primary audience for Barack Obama’s dad humor. There’s a very narrow range of emotions Michelle Obama betrays in public, and that’s never been more obvious than when she’s faced with two chaos puppets who end up trashing her grocery store once an episode. Now that she’s pivoted from political wife to executive producer, maybe Michelle Obama can be a little bit more than just perfect.


    • Waffles + Mochi proves Michelle Obama is a children's TV natural: "Obama is comfortable in this pastel reality, a born kids’ show performer," says Robert Lloyd. "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."
    • Waffles + Mochi is charming, if a bit overstuffed: "In certain ways, Waffles + Mochi is just a kindergarten-friendly version of shows like Ugly Delicious, Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi, and Salt Fat Acid Heat, whose host, chef Samin Nosrat, makes an appearance in the first episode," says Jen Chaney. "It is informative and packed — as previously noted, a little too packed — with segments, including ones that place Waffles and Mochi in restaurants and food-related settings in numerous cities, conversations with kids from various parts of the globe, and animated interstitials that, for example, introduce viewers to the five types of taste, each one cartoonified in a manner reminiscent of a certain recent Pixar. To put it more bluntly, let’s just say that if Sour, voiced by John Early, did 23andme, he would definitely realize he’s related to Anger from Inside Out."
    • This is not a nutrition show or a science show or an environmentalist show: "Mrs. Obama, as she's called in the series, isn't trying to get kids active to stave off childhood obesity or involved in climate change activism to save the world," says Robyn Bahr. "Nope, there's no overt moralism here. (And the show even normalizes disliking some foods.) Instead, Waffles + Mochi does something few other kids programs beyond the occasional Sesame Street curriculum set out to do: teach children the language of food appreciation."
    • The former first lady seems refreshingly unrehearsed here, delivering lines with a natural, ad-libbed quality: "She feels more like a neighborhood mom than like a globally famous figure — which suits the show, whose viewers may not have been alive when she was in the White House," says Daniel D'Addario. "For all that its star seems more chilled out than she was allowed to be in official functions, more than a whiff of her time in public life remains. It’s the Obama-era ethos: earnest, inclusive, merging a wonky eagerness to share as much information as possible with an overreliance on the tools of celebrity to convey that information. This is a big-tent show that occasionally gets too maximalist, and is at its best when looking closely at a given subject. Relative to other kids shows, it trusts its audience’s intelligence."
    • Waffles + Mochi wants to carry on Anthony Bourdain’s legacy while strolling down Sesame Street, and at nearly every turn, it succeeds
    • Why Samin Nosrat won't dumb down food on Waffles + Mochi
    • Waffles + Mochi begs the question: How do you feed a puppet?: Co-creator Erika Thormahlen was starving for a Sesame Street equivalent that taught children the joys of food and cooking when she ran into her friend, Drunk History co-creator Jeremy Konner, at a restaurant. “I said to her, ‘Too bad Waffles + Mochi doesn’t exist right now, because I can’t get my toddler to eat a tomato!’" said Konner. They then enlisted puppeteer Michelle Zamora to design the puppets. "Zamora and the creators bandied about a host of ideas for how involved the puppetry should be," says Clint Worthington. "At one point, they thought about making the puppets as detailed as possible with animatronics, but decided that the simplicity of the old-school, Muppet-like design was the right approach for such a kid-friendly show. They even decided to keep the puppetry rods clearly visible, to maintain the homespun feel of old-school Sesame Street." Which brings us back to that initial question: How do you feed a puppet? “One of the challenges we had was designing a puppet that could eat on-camera,” Thormahlen admits. “Cookie Monster is the most iconic reference, of course, but we were trying to capture puppets that ate like humans.” Together with Zamora, they eventually designed Waffles with an “esophagus” connected to a doggy bag they could switch out at a moment’s notice.

    TOPICS: Waffles + Mochi, Netflix, Erika Thormahlen, Jeremy Konner, Michelle Obama, Michelle Zamora, Kids TV

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