Thursday, December 27, 2018

Holiday "Classic" Recap: Black Mirror: "White Christmas"

“Buddy, look, at this point, being bored by anything other than snow would be a relief. So, come on. Chit chat. Conversate. Something.”

Up until now, the only episode of “Black Mirror” I’ve ever watched was “USS Callister.” Like that episode, “Winter Wonderland,” from the fourth season, serves as a warning against technology run amok. It weaves together three related stories into one narrative with some great twists to make everything come together at the end. If you want a shiny, fuzzy, happy holiday episode of television, this isn’t it. It’s not even a dark but meant to be heartwarming tale like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which I don’t especially like, by the way…I know, I’m not human). It’s fully, unapologetically dark. There are no happy endings for anyone in this story. In these trying times, maybe this is the holiday story we deserve.

The episode is framed around two men, Matt and Joe, who have found themselves working in an isolated, snowy cabin for the past five years, for reasons that (intentionally) aren’t entirely clear. It’s Christmas, and Matt wants to be festive. Joe, however, just wants to wallow. Apparently he’s hardly said anything to Matt in the past five years. Matt convinces Joe to sit down and share a drink, and they start talking. It becomes apparent that people end up in this cabin for doing something horrible, and Matt starts probing Joe about what that might have been. Instead, Joe first wants to hear Matt’s story.

The first of the three stories of this longer than usual episode (it clocks in at about 73 minutes) explains the horrible thing Matt did to wind up at the cabin. He used to run an online, sort of Twitch stream type group where he would give nerdy guys advice on getting laid. Around the holidays, his go-to move was having his clients crash office parties, since in his opinion, women seem to be especially uninhibited at office holiday parties. His client, Harry, quickly zeroes in on two women, Amy and Greta. Amy is blonde and bubbly, Greta has dark hair and is withdrawn. Naturally, Harry is drawn to Greta. Matt has Harry interact with Amy to make him seem more desirable to Greta. He does eventually get to talk to Greta, though, and they develop a rapport. Greta sees him talking to Matt and the peanut gallery, though, and that makes him think he hears voices like she does. She takes him back to her apartment. Matt thinks he’s about to get lucky, but Greta thinks she’s basically found a suicide partner. She decides to free Matt from the voices by force feeding him some awful concoction that makes his mouth bleed. Greta, by the way, is played by the great Natalia Tena, aka Tonks from the Harry Potter movies. Matt is about to burn all evidence of his little peep show ring, but he steps on one of his kid’s toys and his wife hears the commotion.

As Matt and Joe continue to converse, Joe wants to know what Matt actually did for a living. That leads into the second story. In this universe, there is a technology where you can have a “cookie” temporarily implanted in your head that takes on your personality. Once the imprinting is done, the cookie is removed, and the digital version of yourself basically becomes your slave, running all the devices in your house and keeping your calendar. It’s like the concept of a smart home taken to the nth degree. The fact that it’s imprinted with your personality is supposed to make it so it knows things like what temperature to keep your house and how you like your toast without being told. Matt’s job is to basically break the imprinted cookie so that it will do the bidding of its original. He first starts by being nice and conversating (sound familiar?), but if he gets resistance, he uses a process to make time seem to pass exponentially for the imprinted cookie, until sitting there with nothing to do breaks them. This brings up all sorts of ethical dilemmas, since the imprinted cookies are basically sentient. It’s also worth noting here that everybody in this society seems to use a technology called “Eye-Link” that is basically an implanted computer with social media and everything included. You can even “block” people so they just become an outline and can’t talk to you (and vice versa).

Anyway, Matt eventually gets Joe to tell the story of how he came to find himself at the mysterious cabin in the woods. He was dating a woman named Beth, and things seemed to be going reasonably well, even if her father didn’t especially like him and he (Joe) tended to get a bit angry when drunk. There’s a scene where Joe and Beth go to karaoke with friends where Beth seems especially pensive and gets completely sloshed. Joe later finds a positive pregnancy test in their trash can and confronts Beth. Beth says she doesn’t want to be pregnant and Joe has no say in the matter. Joe obviously thinks he should have some say in the matter, and this leads to a huge row where Beth blocks him. She never unblocks him either. And she keeps the kid. Beth eventually turns the original block into a “legal” block, so Joe can’t even see the kid. He/she is just an outline. He stalks Beth’s father’s house every Christmas so he can at least see their outlines, and sometimes he leaves a gift.

Everything changes when Beth dies in a horrible train accident. Joe goes back to Beth’s father’s house, hoping he can finally see his daughter. He’s got a present for her that says “From daddy” and everything. When he finally sees his “daughter” (the block died with Beth), he is in for a huge shock. She is clearly Asian, meaning one of Joe and Beth’s mutual friends was actually the father. Beth’s father finds Joe, and the two have an argument. Joe is just devastated by this revelation, and without realizing what he’s doing, shoves Beth’s father and kills him. He then flees the scene. Beth’s daughter goes out into the blizzard to find help and appears to not survive either. At this point, we realize that Matt and Joe weren’t in a cabin after all. Matt has been talking to Joe’s cookie, trying to get a confession out of him. He has been told by the police that if he’s successful, he’ll get some leniency for his own involvement in the peeping tom ring and related murder. Joe is sentenced, with his cookie punished by being advanced years over the course of Christmas. Matt is released, but he’s put on the “registry” where he will be permanently blocked (with a conspicuous red outline and everything) by everyone else in society forever. It’s quite the merry Christmas!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Food TV Friday: Top Chef Kentucky Season Premiere

I’m a big fan of “Top Chef.” A roommate (who just got engaged recently – congrats Brianne!) in law school introduced me to the show more than ten years ago, and I’ve been a fan ever since. In fact, now that I think about it, I think “Top Chef” was my entry point to becoming the foodie and avid home cook that I am now. In fact, “Top Chef” is even connected to the way I love to travel. Several years ago, I had to go to Atlanta for a work conference, and I decided that I was going to have a little fun the night before the conference was supposed to start. I was going to take a bus from the hotel and go to Flip Burger Boutique, a restaurant developed by Richard Blais, one of my all-time favorite cheftestants, who had a presence in Atlanta at the time (he’s now based out of San Diego). I’ve also been to Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s sandwich shop Smoked and Stacked in DC. I’m going to be in New Orleans in about a week and a half, and restaurants by Isaac Toups and Nina Compton are on my itinerary. All that being said, I’m excited that the new season of “Top Chef” started last night, so I decided I would write about it.

Top Chef tends to feature a different location each year, and this year is Kentucky. This is exciting to me, because for the past few years, watching Damaris Phillips’ show “Southern at Heart” has been a Saturday or Sunday morning staple for me. Phillips was a winner of “Next Food Network Star” and is based out of Kentucky. Watching her show has been a great entry point into learning about Southern food (I’m a Philly girl who has lived in Maryland for twelve years, so I know soft pretzels and Old Bay, not biscuits and bourbon) and Kentucky ingredients in particular. Thanks to learning about the ingredient from “Southern at Heart,” I make a mean batch of sorghum cookies. I’ve even been requested to make them for Christmas this year. Anyway, I’m excited to see the Kentucky ingredients I’ve learned about showcased on this season.

There were a few cheftestants who stood out to me right from the get-go. Even before the season premiere, being a Marylander and a devoted reader of the Washington Post food section, I had heard of Eric Adjepong. He is a first generation Ghanian-American who works in Washington DC. He even cooked at Top Chef veteran Kwame Onwuachi’s restaurant Kith and Kin for a while. He runs a dinner party company with his wife (who is a designer), and he’s kinda hot. He’s very into showcasing West African food, which I think is cool. I look forward to the potential of him opening a West African restaurant in DC someday so I can try it for myself! While watching the episode, Natalie Maronski also stood out to me. She’s a Philadelphia-based consultant who took a bit of a break from the restaurant world while her mother was battling Parkinson’s Disease. Now she’s ready to get back into the kitchen, and she has a heck of a first episode. My grandfather had Parkinsons, and it was hell for our family for over a year, so I have immense sympathy for her. Plus, she can cook.

My least favorite cheftestant thus far is Brandon Rosen, a Bay Area private chef. He was mansplaining all over the place throughout the episode. He was super bossy to his team during the Quick Fire. Then he spent a good portion of the main challenge warning another chef that she wouldn’t possibly be able to finish her tortellini in time (more on that in a bit). As I’ve said before on this blog, I am fed up with mansplainers. I actually know things even though I have a vagina, people! Overall, though, the cast was really likeable. There were plenty of other chefs to root for even beyond the ones I mentioned above. For instance, there was also a fun little segment with two Southern chefs, Kelsey Barnard Clark of Alabama and Sara Bradley of Kentucky (the one Kentucky chef of the season, who used to be coworkers at a restaurant in New York. They’re psyched to be together on the show.

The two competitions of this episode were appropriately Kentucky Derby themed. The Quick Fire was based on the Kentucky Derby’s reputation for being the most exciting two minutes in sports. The cheftestants were divided into teams of three, with each team producing a dish. They would only have two minutes to do their mise en place, after which they could not use a knife for the rest of the challenge. They would then have twenty minutes to cook. One team, once into the second phase of the challenge, was well into searing a big steak before they realized they wouldn’t be able to slice the steak to serve. They 86’d the steak except for a bit of the fat and used poached eggs as the protein instead. And they won the Quick Fire for it! It was the first of what seemed like many mishaps in this episode, despite having what seems like a strong group of cheftestants. The other most notable mishap happened in the main challenge where one chef was convinced she would be able to make tortellini, but she ran out of time so she just made fettuccini instead and almost got sent home for it.

In the main challenge, the cheftestants had to cook individual dishes for a big Kentucky Derby party. They were all judged against their teammates from the first round. Each group would have a “Win,” “Place,” and “Show.” The “Win” judges would have a chance at winning the challenge, and the “Show” judges would be considered for elimination. It definitely got competitive, although the cheftestants mostly seemed good natured about it. They did all their prep the first day, then they got to see where they will be living for the duration, and it’s a huge mansion. It reminds me of the kind of place they would put people up back on “The Real World” (I am so excited that show is coming back – I loved it as a teenager!). Day two was cooking and serving at the party. Natalie won with some ceviche, which was a little surprising only because I remember a past season where it felt like everyone made ceviche and it got played out. Caitlin Steininger was sent home for serving soggy biscuits over tomatoes. She did make me want to try salt and pepper biscuits, though!