July 14, 2020

“The Final Table” on Netflix

In my quest to be lightly entertained, I parceled out one or two episodes nightly of the cooking competition, “The Final Table,” on Netflix.

Teams of two culinary professionals from Europe, Asia, Australia and North America are tasked with making signature dishes from different cuisines. Single episodes each feature culinary nods to India, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Italy, Japan, France and the United States.

The first round of dishes are judged by three people from that particular country — two celebrities and a food critic. In the episode’s second round, called The Final Plate, teams must fashion a dish highlighting one ingredient, and judged by a celebrity chef from that evening’s country.

The Final Table

One team is eliminated per show with the series winnowing down to four competitors who compete against each other for the honor of being seated at a table with the nine celebrity judges.

I did not fall in love with this show immediately, but if you like food and restaurants, you may want to persevere. Throughout the show, clips highlighting famous chefs and competitors, alike, are fascinating. Learning about different cuisines and ingredients is another benefit.

For local bragging rights, Chicago’s own Grant Achatz is the celebrity chef representing the United States. His restaurant, Alinea, and other world-famous dining establishments mentioned in the series now go on my dream dining list.

“The Vote” on PBS

As a country, we are marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote in the 1920 elections.

If you want to learn more about this historic anniversary from the comforts of home, “American Experience” on PBS is featuring a fine documentary, “The Vote,” about the suffragettes and their march toward becoming voting members of our democracy. The show’s tag line provides the theme —“Women were not given the vote. They took it.”

“The Vote” painfully describes the initial coalition and ensuing separation of African-Americans and women to both be awarded the vote after the Civil War. Women were told they had to wait and 43 years elapsed before they were nationally accorded voting rights.

I learned that the Illinois delegation in the Washington, D.C. Women’s March shamefully bowed to racial pressure and denied Ida B. Wells and her group the right to march with white women from “the land of Lincoln.”

Archival photos and film footage are punctuated with short interviews with current-day writers and historians. This is timely information as we examine issues of equality in race, gender and economic status.

The almost four-hour series is separated into Part One and Part Two. Viewing is free now, so catch the programs before they revert to the paid membership catalogue. With that said, a paid Passport membership would not be a waste of money.

“Knives Out” Movie on Amazon Prime Video

Because the pandemic has brought film-going to a standstill, many recent movies have been expeditiously transferred to streaming services and unreleased films have gone straight to video.

I missed seeing “Knives Out” in a real live movie theater, but thankfully, Amazon has been featuring the Rian Johnson-directed film for free to Prime members.

“Knives Out” initially seems like a boilerplate Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, with the deceased being famous and wealthy crime writer Harlan Thrombey played by the superlative 90-year-old actor, Christopher Plummer.

The real stars are Daniel Craig as southern detective Benoit Blanc and Ana de Arias as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse and friend. Flashbacks slowly divulge what really happened as staff, police and family members are introduced to viewers.

The literary scion’s family members are deliciously played by Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Jaeden Martell and Katherine Langford.

I was especially tickled by the throne of knives in the author’s home that gives a pointed nod to the throne of swords featured in the “Game of Thrones” book and tv series. Plot twists, clever dialogue and subversive themes make this a bracing evening of entertainment. Word has it that Daniel Craig may reprise his southern accent in a “Knives Out” film sequel. Count me in.

Netflix Lured Me Back with Light Entertainment

After months of being a non-Netflix subscriber, I was lured back with the promise of new episodes of favorite shows.

Queer Eye has to be one of the most uplifting shows in TV Land right now. The rebooted series has breezed through four Seasons of 8 episodes each in U.S. states like Georgia, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois, with a one-episode season in Australia and a four episode run in Japan. For Season Five, the Queer Eye make-over team is in the Philadelphia, including one candidate from the Jersey Shore.

David Collins, producer of the original series which ran for five seasons from 2003 to 2007) has brilliantly adapted the concept for a new generation of viewers. As much as I liked the previous incarnation, the Netflix reboot has even more heart as the Fab Five tackle redos for men and women from all sorts of cultural backgrounds.

I love all five of these guys: Bobby Berk on design, Tan France on fashion, Jonathan Van Ness for grooming, but I especially love the emotional insight that Karamo Brown brings and the food love that Antoni Porowski evokes. This is my kind of show when I need the world to seem like a happier and safer place.

If you want something even more goofy and light, you might consider The Big Flower Fight. Netflix has taken the reality competition into the floral arena. Teams of two use flowers, grasses and evergreens, as well as man-made and organic elements, to create animals, dresses, thrones, mobiles and fairy tale scenes.

The Big Flower Fight has much in common with The Great British Baking Show which is amply represented on Netflix. Food, fashion and flower competitions are entertaining stress relievers and Netflix is providing lots of fun options.

The Bureau French tv series on Sundance Now

If you are up for a French tv show that has some similarity with Showtime’s Homeland, The Bureau or Le Bureau des Légendes on Sundance Now may be your cup of cafe au lait.

Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz) is an undercover agent with France’s DGSE (General Directorate of External Security), the French equivalent of our CIA. He has been posing as a French teacher in Damascus, Syria and falls in love with an Arab woman who is college professor. Their relationship and its complications is the main through line of Season 1. We are also introduced to Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), a newbie spy who is embedded as a seismologist in Iran to shed light on that country’s nuclear program.

Ancillary characters are other French agents along with their bosses and handlers, CIA operatives, Kurds, terrorists, politicians and business people from different countries, kidnappers, imams and family members of the main players. There are brutal scenes with French captives so this is not a show for the faint of heart.

What you will get with The Bureau is whip smart plotting, memorable characters and a greater sense of the stakes in the Middle East. This is not light entertainment, but you will be immersed in a world that is, hopefully, unlike your own.

All four seasons of Le Bureau are available on Sundance Now.

Downton Abbey – the Movie

I was sad to see the tv series Downtown Abbey broadcast its last episode of season six in 2015. Small wonder that a movie revisiting these beloved characters was welcomed in the fall of 2019.

The original series was set over several years in the early 20th century, including World War I. The film continues with the characters in 1927 when the King and Queen of England pay a brief visit to the Downton Abbey residence.

Lord Grantham and his wife are much the same. Widower Tom Branson and Lady Mary now jointly manage the Downton Abbey property. Sybil is living life as an aristocratic mother and wife at a nearby estate. Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham embroils herself in a fight over a relative’s inheritance.

In the servant quarters, romance and marriage continue to be a driving force. Daisy is reviewing her marriage prospects. Mr. Carson, now married to Mrs. Hughes and in retirement, is commandeered to manage the Royal couple’s visit. Butler Thomas Barrow, meets a new friend and possible love interest. Tom Branson, an Irish hybrid of both upper and lower classes, saves the king from an assailant and falls for a maid traveling with the royal retinue.

Although not as engrossing as the original tv series, Downton Abbey (the movie) makes for a charming evening of entertainment. May Julian Fellowes continue to write about these memorable characters as they traverse the ever-changing 20th century.

The 2019 film is now available on Amazon Prime Video.