Hungry for escape or just hungry? As we contemplate a Labor Day weekend that will likely be short on picnics, pool parties and road trips, we turn to our televisions for holiday diversion and maybe an excuse to eat big hunks of protein with our hands.
To that end, I bring you “Away” and “Chef’s Table: BBQ,” two new series debuting this week on Netflix. The latter is better than the former, but both of them will take your mind off of whatever you wish you were doing this weekend instead of watching TV. Unless that thing is eating brisket. There will be no escaping that.
Technically, Netflix’s new series “Away” is set in a near-ish future, where the international crew of the Atlas is launching the world’s first trip to Mars. Despite the fact that all of the action is happening in a time when the moon is not a destination but a pit stop, and a worried mom can get excellent cell reception from space, “Away” feels like it is being beamed in from a prestige-TV universe that is light years behind us now.
In these times when many of us are depending on television to deliver us from, well, everything, high-quality diversion is not necessarily a bad thing. But “Away” wants to be more than a diversion, and the harder it tries to reach for the stars — both metaphorically and not — the less diverting it gets.
Debuting today, 5/8 Away” stars Hilary Swank as commander Emma Green, who must guide the Atlas on its perilous mission to Mars while also dealing with many issues happening on Earth. It is the ultimate working-mom juggling act, as Emma tries to find her footing after an early technical malfunction (the first of what looks to be an every-episode occurrence), fight off a possible mutiny, and cope with her teen daughter’s separation anxiety and a home-front health emergency.
Emma has a lot on her plate, and Swank does a fine job of showing the war between Emma’s tender domestic side and her fiery, “If we can do this, we can do anything” side. But for the passengers at home, the journey on the good ship Atlas can be pretty bumpy.
Created by Andrew Hinderaker (a writer on “Pure Genius” and “Penny Dreadful”), the 10-episode series has all of the first-class perks you would expect from a TV team that also includes “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” executive producer Jason Katims and “thirtysomething” executive producer Edward Zwick, who directed the first episode. The cast is co-led by the priceless Josh Charles as Emma’s super-supportive husband, Matt. Whether the characters are walking on the moon, having a happy flashback family dinner on Earth or stressing out at Mission Control, the show looks toned and glow-y, like it has just returned from the TV spa.
You’re probably feeling that a critical shoe is about to drop, and here it is. As handsome and high-minded as the series is, I thought the first two episodes of “Away” were also predictable and a little hokey. It is the kind of show where people say things like, “I need you to be strong. Stronger than you’ve ever been in your life.” The kind of show where the Chinese scientist is a bit robotic and the Russian crew member is more than a tad untrustworthy.
The kind of show where the American commander must unite the members of her quarrelsome international crew for the good of a mission that is bigger than all of them.
To its credit, “Away” looks like it will give the crew members more character shadings as the series goes on, even the Russian guy. Here’s hoping the same courtesy is extended to Matt and daughter Lexie (Talitha Bateman), who aren’t given much to do early on except dispense pep talks (Matt) and cry (Lexie). If Hinderaker wants the audience to feel as torn as Emma does, he’s going to have to make life on Earth a lot more interesting than it is in the show’s first two installments.
If you are currently finding comfort in “Friends” binges, “Tiger King” lunacy or “Nailed It!” fondant fails, you might also enjoy losing yourself in “Away.” Even when it is rocketing through space, its dedication to that cozy quality-TV vibe of the mid-2000s makes “Away” feel reassuringly familiar. It won’t take you anywhere new, but it might get you out of your head. And right now, that could be enough.
‘CHEF’S TABLE: BBQ’ (NETFLIX)
If you are a first-time “Chef’s Table” viewer, here are a few things you should know before taking your seat the TV table. First off, do not show up hungry.
Like the seasons before it, the new installment of this ode to masters of cookery spends a lot of time on lingering, beautifully lit shots of food, glorious food. Or in the case of “Chef’s Table: BBQ,” meat, endless meat. Brisket gleaming with fat and lacquered crust. The golden orbs of half chickens. Succulent cochinita pibil, fresh from the pit. If you go into this with an empty stomach, you might end up swallowing your remote. Don’t forget the coleslaw!
The second thing you should know is that “Chef’s Table: BBQ” is not a cooking show. It is a show about the history of food, the significance of food and the art of preserving traditions, nourishing communities and saving yourself through making and serving food. After watching 85-year-old pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz slave over her famous brisket at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, you still won’t know much about the nuts-and-bolts of barbecuing. But you will know a thing or two about living.
Tomanetz is the subject of the first of “Chef’s Table: BBQ’s” four episodes. After decades in the meat business — first at the meat market in Giddings, Texas, that she ran with her husband, then at Snow’s — Tomanetz became a reluctant celebrity in 2008. That was the year Texas Monthly magazine named Snow’s the No. 1 spot in the state for barbecue, and Tomanetz’s life was changed forever.
As “Miss Tootsie” is tending to her wood fires and bathing her meats in mop sauce, we hear about the disconcerting nature of her sudden fame (“It scared me,” she admits), but also about how it saved her. After losing her husband, White, to the aftermath of a stroke and son Hershey to brain cancer, the self-effacing Tomanetz found comfort working as a janitor at the local high school. She also found a community in the strangers who lined up at Snow’s before dawn to eat the food she was so proud of making.
“Some of them, I’ll never see ‘em again,” Tomanetz marvels, thinking of the people who ask her for hugs and selfies. “But I’m happy that I made them happy.”
Come for the spare ribs, stay for the heart. Whatever nourishment you’re looking for, “Chef’s Table: BBQ” delivers.
(Karla Peterson is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
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