Our food supply system is broken, corrupt, dirty, inhumane, and riddled with fraud. If you are not aware of this, you need to be. If you are, chances are good that Netflix’s new true crime series, Rotten, will contain at least some stories you’re familiar with, and probably a few things you didn’t know. Either way, I’m designating it mandatory viewing for people who buy food in the United States. And I say that despite the fact that the series is not a breathtaking work of art. The subject matter’s simply that crucial.
Produced by Zero Point Zero, the company behind many of Anthony Bourdain’s ventures, Rotten offers a true-crime take on a series of food-industry hijinks, looking at, among other things, the production and consumption of chicken, milk, honey, garlic and seafood. Exposing food frauds ranging from the confusing to the flat-out lethal, the episodes investigate various ways in which the literal food chain is screwed up by the corporate food chain, and the ramifications for people who farm, and people who eat. Which I’m pretty sure includes all of us.
The show suffers somewhat from an interview-based recipe where the interviewees are not necessarily all that scintillating. There are standouts: Restauranteur Ming Tsai in the peanut episode exudes energy and intelligence. A chicken farmer named Sunny Nguyen is utterly captivating as he describes the joys and sorrows of raising chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride. And a rather poetic New Mexico garlic farmer named Stanley Crawford sums it up beautifully with the remark, “I consider growing your own food to be a revolutionary act.” But in this format, when you don’t have a roster totally packed with exceedingly articulate and relatable folks, the message can get a little tired. Some of the farmers and businesspeople selected for the episodes are lackluster on camera. Some are… kind of whiny. Some are not as smart as they think they are. It’s reality, but it’s not very riveting.
Similarly, the artistic direction could be snappier, the editing more edgy, the voiceover narration less generic (where was Tony? He could have upped the ante big time just by being the guy at the mic), the narratives less congested. The series seems unsure of whether it’s a true-crime program or a food-industry docuseries, and that uncertainty squanders some potential as well. In several episodes, there are multiple crimes, and some are specific while others are systemic. For instance, in “Lawyers, Guns and Honey,” there’s a storyline about mass-produced “fake honey” and the lengths to which people go to locate it and get it out of the marketplace. There is also a storyline about a specific theft of millions of honeybees from a specific farmer in a specific time and place. Both stories are fascinating, but they are co-presented in a way that depletes both narratives rather than letting them reinforce each other. The “Cod Is Dead” episode can’t quite decide whether it wants to focus on the curious case of “The Codfather,” Carlos Rafael, a Massachusetts fisherman accused of a panoply of crimes—or on government regulation to control overfishing and its unintended consequences. The “true crime” in an episode about dairy farming involves some people getting seriously sick from E. coli complications, but half the episode is focused on a nice-guy family-owned dairy in Pennsylvania and its struggles to stay operational, and the two stories really never converge at all. Long story short, each episode presents a food-related crime, but the signal-to-noise ratio is all over the place. There’s too much information about some things, not enough about others.
That probably sounds like a lot of “could be better” for a series I’m marking with the “you have to watch this” stamp. And I guess it is. I stand by my statement, though: You have to watch this.
The series has a pretty clear message: Food needs to get a lot smaller and more local if we want it to be sustainable for producers and consumers and the planet at large. Every industry the show examines, from garlic to cod to honey to chicken, is suffering, and creating suffering, because it is, like a lot of American grocery shoppers, morbidly obese. Vertical integration and monopolies are creating hideous conditions for animals, screwing farmers, in almost all cases messing with the already desperately unbalanced ecosystems of the planet and in some cases sickening or killing consumers. Everyone needs to know this stuff. After all, these food criminals get away with their various crimes because we let them. Each and every one of us aids and abets big, dirty food every time we go grocery shopping or eat at a fast food restaurant or otherwise allow several layers of middlemen to spring up between us and a food product. We are creating the conditions for fraud and theft and human and animal welfare violations with our insane and ever-swelling demand for gigantic amounts of cheap calories. It’s not feasible to produce or consume local, healthy, reasonable food, and that should not be true.
Late last year, Netflix premiered Wasted, a Bourdain-helmed documentary about food waste and one I recommend highly because it has the whole package-information you really do need, a clear and optimistic call to action, and great artistic values. I was hopeful this series would take the same path, but so far, to my mind, it has not found its footing. That doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t, and in the meantime I maintain that this topic is just too bloody important to let a little lackluster storytelling get in the way. The stories themselves are strong. Some of the people telling them are fascinating and some are not. So be it. Every one of the episodes I saw could easily have been either whittled down to a hyper-focused crime story, or spooled out into a sprawling 4-8 episode season of its own, following the many tributaries that have created the food landscape we are living in and shining lights into a lot of shadowy corners. Either approach might have yielded something more artful than what we have in front of us here, but nonetheless, the subject matter is so important I feel it would be irresponsible to recommend against giving it a try. There is a lot of TV out there about crime, and a lot of TV about food. In both categories there are programs more, and less, interestingly made than Rotten. This series gets in its own way to a certain extent. But I think we need to let that go and pay attention, because our relationship with food has become that dysfunctional. We seriously need to be paying attention because our choices have the power to enable or dismantle an awful lot of corruption.
Rotten is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.