The episodic series unfortunately satisfies neither.
There’s a big difference between true crime and issue films. True crime focuses on singular incidents involving a minimal scope of impact. Issue films tackle broader, ongoing problems affecting much of it not all of human health or society. True crime can certainly be tied to big issues, as The Keepers does with a murder mystery ultimately linked to corruption in the Catholic Church, but usually there’s no crossover between documentary genres.
Another Netflix series, Rotten, is being marketed as a mix of true crime and foodie doc, but it’s really just a collection of six medium-length issue films exposing problems in the US food industry. In order, they deal specifically with honey, peanuts, garlic, chicken, milk, and fish. If any of these items are a part of your diet — or in the case of the peanut episode, if they can’t be — you’ll want to know what all is covered and uncovered by the show.
But it’s never that clear why any of the issues in Rotten should matter to the wide streaming audience, outside of sometimes hinting at the costs for consumers. Nonetheless, it is interesting to learn about how some of these markets work and what’s at stake for the farmers and fishermen aiming to deliver us the best and cheapest food products and what’s going on in the government and the businesses to increase those products’ profitability.
Each episode takes a similar approach to highlighting the respective problems. First we’re introduced to the food item and how it’s grown or raised or caught, and we meet individual growers and breeders and trawlers. Then the series sets up its primary issue, whether it’s a matter of globalization of markets ruining the integrity of the foods themselves or a situation of health concerns such as allergies and bacterial illness.
Some of the docs also share some specific and isolated story that could maybe be classified as true crime. There’s the tale of the girl in England with a peanut allergy mistakenly served a dish with peanuts at a curry restaurant. There’s one about a mass murder of chickens in South Carolina. And there’s a theft of honey bees in California. None of these smaller stories play out in a compelling fashion, even if they’re initially intriguing, because they ultimately come off as asides with little weight and barely any narrative denouement.
Rotten, which is produced by people more experienced in foodie favorites like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Mind of a Chef, wants to be too many things. So it’s inconsistent and disjointed, like a dish lacking focus and cohesion. And it wants to be as accessible as possible. So it’s often dumbed down and slow with its storytelling. I found myself impatient with the pacing of many of the episodes, waiting for a main point to come through in each and rarely seeing one in the end. There are morsels here and there, but very few.
While occasionally educational and enlightening, above all the series has a problem with many of its production choices. Rotten is poorly edited as far as how much excessive and redundant material is present, perhaps to fill time, and with many specific moments marred by bad decisions — in the fish episode, for example, a character stands on a shore and shares his love for and the significance of the sounds of a certain local seabird. “For me, it’s very special to hear this,” he says as the doc cuts to a shot of the creatures. “It’s beautiful.” Meanwhile, there’s increasingly louder melancholy piano score on the soundtrack, keeping us from actually hearing the birds for ourselves.
Among the bad decisions made for Rotten is the choice of narrator, regular Radiolab contributor Latif Nasser. Maybe this is nitpicking, but his voice sounds too young and casual for the material. He comes off as detached and unassertive, and that sort of disengaged tone holds back the engagement of the viewer, as well. Plus his narration is usually just there for unnecessary overemphasis or to fill in with information the series has to tell whatever it fails to properly show. Or has failed to gather from its characters directly.
Not all is terrible, and the series actually gets better as it goes on. The first two episodes, those focused on honey and peanuts, are actually quite awful with their rambling and protracted segments. The piece on garlic (which gets points for its shout out to Les Blank’s classic Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers) is sharper in focus on a curious, if rather convoluted, industry. And “Milk Money” does a decent job exploring the situation with raw milk, linking the divide of historical context, small human-interest story, and big issue concerns more fluidly and cohesively than the others do with their subjects.
It’s hard to believe anything in Rotten is essential, though, at least in this form. The first episode in particular suffers from there already being tons of docs about bees and honey without offering anything substantially new. For a more concentrated and captivating look at the New England fishing trade, watch the more confident and character-concerned films Downeast and Sacred Cod. To get more comprehensive and truly investigative exposes on the food industry, read books by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and others. For info on how to combat peanut and food allergies, consult a physician.
As a whole, Rotten doesn’t stink, but fitting to its title, it’s not that fresh or appetizing either. There’s almost no reason for the series to be labeled as true crime, as there are no central mysteries let alone an examination of one. And as a spotlight on broader issues it’s not fulfilling in either its content or its form. Ironic in its distribution of mediocre product, with this series Netflix comes out itself as having the most apparent problem of quality standards.