As first lady, Michelle Obama grew a vegetable garden at the White House to make children more curious about what they eat. These days, what she grows takes a more visible form. Obama produces (with her husband) and appears (with puppets) in the Netflix series “Waffles + Mochi,” part of the former first couple’s Higher Ground Prods. deal with the streamer. This is less lofty than other Higher Ground projects, but it will likely appeal to the most inquisitive among the younger set.
Waffles, performed by puppeteer Michelle Zamora, is a creature — half-waffle and half-Yeti — who emerges from a grocery-store freezer to explore the world outside. Waffles’ friend, Mochi (Russ Walko), communicates, like R2-D2, in a series of whirs and beeps that only a best pal can understand. The pair are, if not as instantly distinctive as, say, Bert and Ernie, possessed of a winning goofball spirit. Together, they learn about one ingredient each episode, guided by the store’s gardener, Mrs. O., played by Obama in a series of cameos alongside a friendly bee named Busy (Jonathan Kidder).
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The concept is appealingly mutable, and the production has the sort of resources that allow it to travel internationally (several scenes take place in Japan, for instance), or to book top-flight guests. But the show can at times feel overstuffed, as if trying to please too many people, and parents may find themselves wondering what might have been trimmed to make the experience a little less chaotic. To wit: A Sia song about the confusion over whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit adds little more than dazzle to the subject, and kids who don’t closely track media culture may wonder why the tomato is wearing Sia’s wig from the “Chandelier” era. And Tan France of “Queer Eye” attempts to find garments for a potato before concluding potatoes need no special clothes to be tasty and nutritious — a piece of Netflix cross-promotion that feels less than fully baked. Kids have the rest of their lives to engage with celebrity culture, and star-driven bits like these are the one element that’s always one too many in each episode.
When describing the uses of food, “Waffles + Mochi” will likely excite children when showing particular things to do together, as when, in the same episode that Sia’s song falls flat, chef José Andrés — at just the right energy level for kids to vibe with — makes a gazpacho for his new buddies. But the show is less effective when it defaults to just listing all the different ways a food can be prepared, as happens multiple times throughout. It’s when an episode dives in that it’s most interesting.
Obama’s presence is fleeting — appearing to reframe what her two pals have learned. (In the first installment, the two puppets learn that tomatoes belong in all sorts of cuisines … and so too do they themselves belong with Mrs. O., a dose of sentimentality serving as dessert at the end of an otherwise cerebral episode.) 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.
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. This encapsulation of the Obamas’ sensibilities comes as no surprise. Indeed, the pair’s post-presidency media endeavors can sometimes fill one with a Peggy Lee sense of “Is that all there is?” All the access in the world and the skill to communicate one’s philosophy, and the result is a Spotify podcast and a Netflix show?
“Waffles + Mochi” cannot answer these questions, but taken on its own terms, it’s productive. Teaching kids to appreciate the sources of their meal and to eat with a spirit of inquiry is a good thing, and if future iterations of the program pare back some excesses, this may become a family favorite for seasons to come. That’s exciting less as a brand play by two famous figures than as an opportunity for further culinary exploration. It’s worth being dubious of the tightening alliance between politics and celebrity culture, but this show tempts even a cynical viewer to give it a pass — not least because the intended audience does not care about the Obamas’ past achievements. When “Waffles + Mochi” works, it’s not because of the names in the credits but because of what they’ve brought to it.
“Waffles + Mochi” debuts on Netflix March 16.
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