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Formula 1 and their drive to survive

Drive to Survive is a brilliant behind the scenes look at the world’s top motorsport. But can a Netflix documentary help save Formula 1?

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As a kid growing up in Indonesia, motor racing sat at the periphery of my sporting interests. In fact, I knew very little of it save the occasional clip on television. There was one exception, and that was Formula 1. Something about it grabbed my attention, and I remember vividly watching the Monaco Grand Prix as brightly colored cars raced through an exotic city I had never heard of. This was in the days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, both untouchable in their craft. I didn’t understand the greater depths of Formula 1 then, but I knew that these two were immense, unstoppable forces in a sport where feats of skill and physics are only inches from catastrophe. I liked the fast cars, the great sounds, and the pageantry that came with the sport of millionaires.

It was 1989, when the Monaco Grand Prix was won by Senna, but his season was met with disappointment in Japan after being disqualified for missing a chicane. Prost won his third Championship that season. The rivalry between the two, heightened by the fact that they were teammates, made for the kind of drama you can only dream of scripting. And it was in part, why Formula 1 was such enthralling viewing.

It didn’t stay that way. The recent years have seen a decline in viewership, struggles and conflicts with Formula 1’s new ownership group – an ownership group that has received fresh criticism from the sport’s own promoters association (FOPA) – a flatlining in young viewers and to top it off, slower cars and a lack of competitiveness. It certainly doesn’t bode well from what you read. But Formula 1 isn’t quite ready to pit just yet. Like any great monolith of sport and media, demises are often exaggerated- at least that’s what they want you to think. Throughout the 2018 season, Formula 1 teamed up with Netflix to create and film a documentary about the season (a season won once again by Lewis Hamilton) and titled it Drive to Survive. An apt title that truly means many things.

Formula 1 fans are serious business. I am not a serious fan, rather, a casual one whose fandom waned after my initial connection. I don’t get into the minutiae of aerodynamic engineering, the details of every season and every driver, or the finer points of the constant rule changes, but I do enjoy good sports documentaries. Drive to Survive, like the terrific Sunderland Til I Die, is Netflix’s most recent entry into the field. By taking what HBO did so well for so long and giving it the new Netflix sheen, they have proven that sometimes letting the drama of reality unfold (with a nudge and a push), results in an infinitely better product. Drive to Survive is a 10-episode series, cut roughly into 30-40 minute episodes with season-long narrative arcs coupled with shorter episodic arcs, spliced between the 10. Mercedes and Ferrari aren’t featured, and so while we get passing glimpses of Lewis Hamilton, he does not feature in the documentary. Instead, we are given the narratives of the “best of the rest” (the battle for fourth and fifth place between longstanding French team Renault and upstart American battlers Haas), interwoven with interesting conflicts between oft-third place team Red Bull, and the rest of the championship ladder.

Netflix are fantastic at production. It’s proven in Drive to Survive. The access they were given (outside of Mercedes and Ferrari) is close to all-access, and the way the series unfolds is all glorious high-definition action, fast-paced adrenaline ballet. I didn’t know who Christian Horner was (Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal), or Cyril Abiteboul (Renault), but they’re given the spotlight and their hilariously ticky-tacky feud that encompasses everything from their team drivers, to their engines (Red Bull Racing had, until 2019, used Renault engines in their cars), is a microscope of what really goes on behind the scenes. These are the things that make Formula 1 interesting, and a reason why this documentary resonated with me as a casual fan. Like any sport, the personalities that clash, the memorable ones, become the stories that make the sport enduring. While the series shows plenty of race footage, the most captivating are those of the drivers away from the track, as they balance the incredible pressures of being a race car driver at its ultimate level. True, this co-production means that you’ll only get so far under the skin of the sport, but regardless of whether or not this series is one big shiny promo (what production isn’t?), it doesn’t take away from the results.

Red Bull vs Renault
Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal and Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport F1 Managing Director, really, really don’t like each other.

I cared about the careers and lives of upstart drivers like Esteban Ocon and Charles LeClerc, felt a connection to the tumultuous season of French driver Romain Grosjean (who will henceforce be known as “Crashy McCrasherson”), and I felt the pain and frustration of all-time great Fernando Alonso as he struggled to drag the apparent carcass of the once-great McLaren team (at the season’s conclusion, a handler tells Alonso as he’s talking that the press want him to “walk slower”, for what I assume is for better photographs and media, only for him to retort, “I want to be fast at least once this year”). It worked because of the personalities that make up the kaleidoscope of Formula 1, and because Netflix were able to craft and shape the reality into perfect storytelling.

It is this connection, this caring from casuals and occasional viewers that will help salvage Formula 1. You don’t have to care that the rules are constantly changing. You don’t have to know that the cars are slower (or faster) this year than they were last year. And you don’t have to know who Nigel Mansell is or that the Tyrell “six-wheeler” is still the coolest race car ever designed. You just have to like human stories, emotion, drama, and good documentary production.

As the Australian Grand Prix roared past my window a few weeks ago, I hoped that Daniel Ricciardo would succeed on his home turf. Not because he’s Australian, but because we got to see a little more of who he is away from the wheel (a good Aussie bloke and a fantastic driver who just needs a little bit of luck).

For the first time in a long time, I’m interested to see how the season unfolds. I know who the players behind the sparks, the speed, and the sounds are now. And thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive, I care once again about the pageantry, the extravagance, and the thrills of the sport of royalty.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.

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Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed but sincere ode

Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed, but sincere ode

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One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.

Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.

We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.

The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.

It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.

I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.

Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.

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Roswell: New Mexico was better than it had any business being

Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t.

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In an era where audiences are over-saturated by television remakes, it is a hard task to find one that is worth more than a dose of fleeting nostalgia. Some shows found solid ground to stand out (Hawaii Five-0 is entering its 9th(!) season?), some have rightfully disappeared into the dustbin of canceled TV shows (24: Legacy, Charlie’s AngelsHeroes: Reborn), while others have somehow continued to plod along as caricatures of their once glorious selves (how is that terrible MacGyver remake still on?).

Roswell: New Mexico, The CW remake of the 1999 series Roswell (which originally aired on The CW’s precursor channel The WB) was, like any and all remakes, met with an initial level of skepticism. Any show that manages to build an almost cult-like following will be shadowed by its cult, and anything that threatens its place will inevitably be met with derision (see the kind words left on our Nikita remake piece from a few years ago). I was one of those skeptics, as a fan of the original Roswell; a remake of a show that was good, but not great, was just plain unnecessary (although to be honest, that can be said about all these remakes).

The new show’s first season has just concluded and through the 13-episode run, surprisingly there was plenty to be impressed with. But let’s get some of the fundamentals out of the way- Roswell: New Mexico doesn’t stray too far away from the original text, both the Roswell High book series and the 1999 series. The characters involved are essentially the same- Max, Liz, Michael, Isabel- but the settings and relationships have in a way, been given a decade-long time jump. Where the book and the original series played out in the hallways of high school drama and politics, Roswell: New Mexico shows us the characters ten years later, navigating the drama and politics of dusty roads and small towns.

With that comes the added weight of current day politics, and Roswell: New Mexico does a good job balancing the political discourse of building walls, illegal aliens (the easiest of double meanings), and cultural backlash in the shadow of nationalist politics. The Liz in New Mexico is also more accurate of the original text: no longer is she Liz Parker but, as in the books, Liz Ortecho. The Ortecho family are crucial to the story of the new series, not only driving the story but setting the tone of the conflicts between the characters as well. Thankfully the Ortecho family are no caricatures of a Mexican-American family but come across as genuine and believable- which is a hard thing to do at times on the small (or big) screen. It’s small things too- language, and the use of it, being prominent. It goes a long way. With television representation becoming more diverse, Roswell: New Mexico finds itself in the funny place where their original text is finally finding its rightful place in an adaptation instead of being whitewashed for audiences.

Much like the 1999 adaptation there are enough twist and turns to keep the story progressing. It’s gripping enough for network television, but avoids being overly convoluted, with much of the drama mostly resolved by season’s end. The absurdity of aliens amongst us is done a little less kitschy, but can still come across as… aliens living in a small town. A lot happens in 13-episodes, seemingly compacting multiple story arcs presented in 1999, but the season closes out on a surprising note and one that should draw viewers into a second.

But what makes Roswell: New Mexico better than it had any business being?

The series is airing in a television climate where appeasing the current social agenda for diversity often becomes an exhausting exercise (see Charmed reboot). Often it doesn’t feel genuine, or for the reasons we should push diversity in entertainment. This comes across in the content, whether intentionally or not. A lot of this stems from the idea that diversity should be pushed through originality and fresh stories (Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish) instead of rewriting what was already written. Roswell is lucky then, that the original text was subverted to fit television, and now the series has the opportunity to be a little more faithful. It isn’t perfect- small town Caucasian characters portrayed as over-the-top bigots and racists is no better than minorities portrayed in all the ways they have been before. But I suppose the scales will have to find a balance somewhere down the road. What you have with Roswell: New Mexico is a good series that will not get the kind of press one of those glossy but flimsy shows receives (why do we care so much about Riverdale? How come no one else sees how bad Shonda Rhimes shows are?), but goes by its agenda quietly.

On a slightly more superficial note, the show’s nostalgia-tinted use of music- both in diegetic and non-diegetic terms- is a warm and fuzzy welcome to those who spent their formative music years hooked on 90s radio. Roswell: New Mexico does a great job of being fans of 90s music while using it as MacGuffins to progress its plot. Someone on that writing staff was a starry-eyed teen who lived it, and now they get to soundtrack a show to a mixtape someone made them in 1998. Third Eye Blind’s “God of Wine” as a significant plot point? Sure, why not? Plus, it’s a nice to hear Counting Crows instead of Post Malone. The show’s tribute to the 1999 show’s theme song is a small but fitting ode. It’s the small things that New Mexico get right.

For now, Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t, and that’s generate interest past its initial run.

Maybe they got some of the big things right too.

Roswell: New Mexico airs on The CW in the United States and on Fox 8 in Australia.

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