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Puppets, Politics, and Power

‘Waffles + Mochi,’ the latest Netflix title from the former first couple’s production company, will charm kids and adults alike. But it sure is weird to see Michelle Obama in a puppet show during such an inflamed political period.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Let’s get this straight: Michelle Obama, assisted by an uptight honeybee named Busy, tends to a garden on the roof of her grocery store in the big city. One day she’s greeted by two adventurous companions, Waffles and Mochi, who once lived in the land of frozen food and for years subsisted on fried ice cubes before venturing to Obama’s supermarket in search of a job. Together, under Obama’s soft-spoken tutelage, Waffles and Mochi learn a series of lessons about pantry essentials and the cultures they hail from. Tomatoes, it turns out, are fruit. Pickles are cucumbers. France once outlawed potatoes. The more you know.

In reality, Obama is the executive producer and star of a new TV series, Waffles + Mochi, on Netflix. She helped develop the series through her multimedia studio, Higher Ground Productions, cofounded with her husband, Barack. (Higher Ground produces two podcasts hosted by the Obamas in partnership with Spotify, which owns The Ringer.) The press tour for Obama’s memoir, Becoming, released three years ago, marked her reemergence as a private citizen—but a celebrity nonetheless. As first lady, Obama led a long public health campaign to encourage healthy eating habits in children. Given this portfolio, Waffles + Mochi—originally titled Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents by creators Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner—might have rehashed the familiar childhood lectures about fruits, vegetables, and grains. That’s more or less what I was prepared to watch.

But Waffles + Mochi is a bit more fanciful than expected. It’s a food travelogue starring puppets. It’s got musical interludes and celebrity cameos. Obama features in the series but the plucky rag doll Waffles (Michelle Zamora) and her tiny, chipper companion Mochi (puppeted by Russ Walko, voiced by Piotr Michael) spend each episode running far-flung errands in search of vital ingredients. The pair meets farmers, chefs, and restaurateurs, each of whom imparts knowledge on the source of foods and their role in regional cuisines. In the first episode, Samin Nosrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat explains the anatomy of tomatoes, and how the interior presence of seeds technically classifies them as fruits. Later, restaurateur José Andrés teaches the puppets how to make gazpacho, offering an alternative viewpoint that tomatoes are often culturally viewed as vegetables.

The series is interested in expanding young culinary imaginations in the U.S. to include a wider variety of foreign foods: miso, mole, kimchi, etc. And Waffles + Mochi values curiosity and mischief in the kitchen. In the second episode, Waffles smears miso on a chocolate chip cookie, chomps, and gags. In their adventures together, Waffles and Mochi pilot MagiCart, a happy jet that escorts Waffles and Mochi to San Francisco, Oaxaca, Osaka, and beyond to discover new foods.

Though Obama’s on-camera role in the series is minor, it’s still intriguing to consider how she became involved with this project in the first place. Sure, her work as first lady alludes to a topical base interest. But she and her husband also appear determined to become middlebrow content producers, beginning with 2019’s Oscar-winning documentary film American Factory. Ten years earlier they might have retired on six-figure speaking fees and profits from book publishing. Nowadays it seems almost in vogue for world leaders to launch multimedia empires—just look at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Donald Trump, too, seems set on becoming a media mogul—once again—in his post-presidency. Reportedly, he plans to launch a digital media network to compete with right-wing cable news. In any case he seems to cherish his access to social media and cable news more than he cherishes any more formal power.

In the case of the Obamas, perhaps, given Barack’s yearly publishing of lists outlining his favorite films, television, books, and music, the couple are simply admirers of good art—and want to create some themselves. The Obamas are role models in this regard. They haven’t abandoned politics for entertainment so much as they’re conflating the two realms. Though it’s all a bit frivolous considering the general urgency, outrage, and cynicism that has inflamed politics in the four years since the Obamas exited the White House. Barack Obama was a once-in-a-generation political talent, and now he coproduces puppet shows and podcasts. Then again, Bill and Hillary Clinton spent two decades tending to a proper post-presidential project that has proved rather disastrous for them and the Democratic Party. Politics or media: Pick your poison.

Having perhaps learned from the Clintons’ missteps, Barack and Michelle Obama have withdrawn into soft focus: the obligatory memoirs, a podcast chat series with Bruce Springsteen, a documentary about Chinese management at an Ohio factory, a food travelogue starring puppets. Waffles + Mochi is a crowd-pleaser for young kids and a curious showcase for Michelle Obama. She’s resisting the calls to launch her own political career but preserving her standing, reflected consistently in polling for the past few years, as the world’s most widely admired woman. She’s also preserved some cucumbers in the process.