Some true crime series draw their allure from a certain sense of removal: a murder in an exotic locale, a felony with members of the billionaire set, a heist featuring bizarre, outrageous targets. But “Rotten,” Netflix’s latest documentary series, picks a decidedly more relatable topic: the very food we consume. While using familiar style and rhythms of bloodier, darker doc counterparts, “Rotten” still manages to use the immediacy of the dinner table as a way to help reshape the conversation about what we put in our bodies.
Each installment follows a different corner of food production, focusing on a specific subset of the industry. From the opening chapter chronicling unexpected developments in the world of bee pollenation to deep dives into garlic production and chicken harvesting, these individual hourlong segments are sturdy intros into areas eaters tend to take for granted.
As a result, these episodes feel like satisfying diversions from a familiar storyline, diving into the origins and lives of side character foods that most people may not have thought about beyond the confines of a supermarket. Looking at various steps in the process between cultivation and final sale, “Rotten” considers conglomerates and independent farmers, domestic producers and foreign exporters without framing any of the underlying crimes as solely coming from one force or another.
There’s a constant emphasis on the human side of the foods and crimes that make up the series, but they come on the heels of a full-view consideration of the economic factors that control so much of both. By the middle of the six-episode season, there’s a glaring pattern in how each industry struggles with the twin motivations of efficiency and quality. Some elements of this make for a policy Rorshach test: Even though “Rotten” often foregrounds working-class farmers and independent growers as the victims of these crimes, most of these episodes withhold judgment of whether the tenets of the global economic system are to blame or whether some of these chapters are inevitable byproducts of human nature.
These stories aren’t restricted merely to one section of America or the globe, incorporating stories and interests ranging from the California Central Valley to the peanut farms of Georgia, from rice fields in China to meat processing plants in Brazil. Uniting these disparate corners of the globe under the banner of a single food not only underlines the commonalities between various cuisines, it puts a hole in the theory that international trade can be “solved” by strong posturing or tough talk. If an hour-long installment can barely scratch the surface of the intricacies of the global honey trade, it puts the challenges of a shifting global landscape in further relief.
But regardless of where this food is coming from, another common theme of “Rotten” is that literal and figurative appetites are becoming less sustainable by the year. The series doesn’t get too mired in a sea of statistics, but through shots of massive storerooms and quick global map graphics, “Rotten” is as concerned with the challenges and consequences of volume as many of these industry food producers are.
In order to avoid being a completely grim antidote to “Chef’s Table,” “Rotten” still fits in some loving appreciation of the beauty of some food prep. For every dimly lit evidence wall and ground’s eye shot of meat being ground onto the camera, there are handfuls of slo-mo sequences of knife sharpening, veggie chopping and skillet swirling. Between the music and the episode-to-episode structure, this is a series focused more on substance than style.
With that structure, there’s also a tiny shift that elevates this over the standard single-issue doc. What sometimes is laid out in the pre-credits prologue as a simple tale of corporate malfeasance or interindustry sabotage is often revealed to have a few unexpected layers. A chorus of parents concerned over allergies, righteous international policy lawyers, and multinational executives rarely end up each episode as the individuals that they seem at the outset.
In this way, even with a laser focus on the fate of these food worlds, “Rotten” occasionally steps back and examines how we process our own comforts. The goal of each episode isn’t to draw clear heroes and villains and lay a clear path to which companies or growers to direct your purchasing power towards. The show doesn’t provide an easy path to absolution that buying from one supplier will bring about justice or that withholding business from another will cause an industry-wide sea change. But like the best documentary efforts, it puts forth these stories with the idea that a more informed audience is a healthier one.
“Rotten” Season 1 is now available on Netflix.