Watching three new Netflix unscripted shows recently, and was surprised that none of them got a whole lot of promotion, though your algorithm may vary.
One of them was already was broadcast in the UK, which may explain Netflix’s lack of promotion for it, while the other two are original to Netflix.
All three are quick, easy, fun watches, between four and eight episodes each. As a cooking competition, a home renovation show, and a docuseries following people at their jobs, they certainly don’t reinvent their reality TV subgenres.
Yet because each is doing something new and interesting, I do recommend all three, whether for a weekend binge-watch or a show to pop back into once in a while. Enjoy!
Five Star Chef
Five Star Chef is a UK show that recently finished broadcasting on Channel 4 as Five Star Kitchen: Britain’s Next Great Chef.
It’s The Apprentice meets Hell’s Kitchen: chefs competing for a real job as head chef at the Palm Court at the Langham in London. The restaurants’ website indicates that the winner does indeed have that job, though as a six-month pop-up restaurant.
Considering some of the drama and clumsiness of many of the chef contestants’ performance in the challenges, that is quite impressive. It’s a good collection of reality TV personalities—and there is actual skill, too.
The chefs are tested in aspects of running this restaurant, such as creating celebration centerpieces or an afternoon tea service. In each challenge, they have to apply their restaurant concept. The concepts are what made the show for me: Lara’s theatrical presentations and Jordan’s trios, Adria’s vegetable-forward menus and Dominic’s Caribbean dishes.
The judges are a combination of exacting, supportive, and irritable. Michel Roux Jr., a Michelin-starred chef who runs food and beverage at the Langham, is the head judge; along with Junior Bake Off judge and pastry chef Ravneet Gill; and chef and Great British Menu participant Mike Reid, who does the most kitchen-yelling.
The first few of its six episodes were a little slow, but it picked up once the group of 13 chefs thinned, and I got a better sense of them and their concepts.
The tableside presentation challenge was my favorite of the challenges because it offered such a focused platform for the concept, the chef’s approach, and their cuisine all in one. It’s such a smart challenge and produces so much entertainment that I’d watch a show just about that—and may just rewatch that episode.
Working: What We Do All Day
Working: What We Do All Day is both produced and stars a former president of the United States: Barack Obama. Yet after a cold open that features him arriving at his own current workplace, Obama simply becomes the narrator, offering brief context over historical footage.
He does show up at the end of episodes to spend some time with one of the subjects—shopping at a Piggly Wiggly, or hanging out in a basement listening to music—but there’s no acknowledgment that he’s the former president. The store, for example, is oddly empty, of both other customers and Secret Service.
That judicious use of him, and the lack of fawning over a former president, allows Working’s focus to stay instead with the people who are being profiled.
Half of all American workers are in what we call essential jobs, yet they’re also low-paid. We see someone who, among other jobs, drives for Uber Eats, and due to the way Uber works, wastes hours just to earn $100 or $200 a week.
Along the way we learn about the “wild historical anomaly” of the middle class, and also the benefits of a union. “We can give people more dignity, or less,” Obama says at one point. “Those are choices we make.” The series doesn’t, however, address either the choices he made as president or the ways our society is structured.
A four-episode series cannot cover all industries and jobs, but it does cover service workers to executives in various industries.
Director Caroline Suh, who directed Netflix’s terrific Salt Fat Acid Heat, structures the episodes in a way that allows us to see and understand connections and disparities, and what the jobs are like. The editing, for example, communicates the repetitiveness of a hotel’s housekeeper job, showing one person opening door after door, day after day.
The series’ best move is following people who work at the same New York hotel, starting with housekeepers and moving on to people who answer phones, and also at the same home care company. That shifts the angle on the same workplace.
The series was inspired by Studs Terkel’s 1974 book Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, which itself was adapted into a Broadway musical, a version of which was turned into a 1982 PBS show.
Terkel’s book was remarkable for just letting people talk about their work, and Working does that well, too, though the way it presents those stories is its real strength.
Hack My Home
Hack My Home is Queer Eye meets Monster House, with a family’s space and organization problems solved by a team of four people:
- Brooks Atwood, who’s in charge of innovation and body glitter
- Mikel Welch, who handles design and also mocking Brooks’ ideas
- Jessica Banks, who does engineering
- Ati Williams, who does the actual construction and renovations
I hope all four get a bonus for how many times they say “hack,” though almost none of what they do are hacks. They do major renovations, buy expensive products and technology, and almost never do something that we could do.
I’m all for people getting full-scale renovations paid for by Netflix. That budget—and the crew working on the renovations—produces some great reveals. That’s mostly why I’m here: to see the reveal. The solutions are fun, and include moving walls and platforms, hidden doors and rooms, unfolding desks and staircases.
It’s actually not hard to imagine the show as a Quibi series: introduce the problem, show the completed solution, done.
As watchable as it is, I found myself frequently mocking it while watching. Is hanging shelves in front of a window a hack, or just, you know, shelves? They call a drawer a “secret drawer” because it doesn’t have a handle. They build a “full-size” bed in a camper that looks like it would comfortably fit one adult human’s legs.
A dining room table that slides out of the island doesn’t so much slide as has to be put together, which looked super annoying on TV, so I’d love to see the families after the cameras have left being like, What the hell are we going to do with this?
In one episode, we meet a 12-year-old who has to sleep on a Murphy bed. In the family room. Which has no doors. When his family goes camping, they sleep in the trailer and he has to sleep in a tent outside. The real hack here would be giving him a place to store cash for future therapy sessions.
When the team first suggests putting that kid’s bed in the air above the family room, and then keeping it a family room, I was like, just give the kid a room! They do turn a considerable part of the attic into a room for him—yet no one can stand up in it, and it has one exit, and my anxiety for him is strong. I guess I will go hack my own therapy.