Like most people living under shelter-in-place orders or voluntarily socially distancing because of COVID-19, Eater staffers are watching a lot of TV right now. Coming from series past and present, here are the best food-related scenes, episodes, and shows that we used to cope this week.
Party Down (Seasons 1 and 2 streaming on Hulu)
The gist: The failed dreams and enduring delusions of a Hollywood catering company’s employees are all on excruciating, glorious display in this criminally underwatched 2009 comedy series, which ran for two brief but glorious seasons on Starz. Each episode is set at a different function where the crew has been hired to sling hors d’oeuvres: a funeral, a college conservative union caucus, a preschool auction, a singles seminar, Steve Guttenberg’s birthday party, and one spectacularly unsuccessful orgy night.
While food and booze give the show its reason for existence, it’s the personal struggles of the caterers — and often their clients — that provide its brand of satirical, irreverent, and often very biting humor. Almost all of the company’s employees — the failed actor, the aspiring screenwriter, the stage mom, the struggling comedian — have been chewed up (or at least teethed on) by the Hollywood system, which lets the show examine and skewer the industry’s class struggles and pretensions with a hilarious lack of remorse. That said, Party Down wouldn’t be nearly as effective without its cast, which includes Jane Lynch and Megan Mullally, along with the then-relatively unknown Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, and Martin Starr. Watching them grimly work a room armed with cheese platters and shrimp puffs is one of life’s more specific pleasures, and also among its most reliable. —Rebecca Marx
The original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (available to purchase on Amazon Prime)
I’ve been getting real joy out of watching Ted Allen on the original run of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which upon second watch is hilariously antagonistic toward the straight guys. Unlike Antoni, who tries to meet these men on their level by having them make avocado toast or pancakes, Allen basically cooks everything himself and gives his subjects busywork. Men can assemble crudite, if they want, or whip egg whites while Allen has already infused cream with vanilla beans and has it melting with expensive chocolate on the stove. In one episode, Allen orders his subject $ 50 jars of kosher foie gras to make armagnac-infused mousse, to be served with shaved black truffle, because “people are pretty accustomed to” pâte (???). And then, when the guy’s girlfriend doesn’t seem to like it, he bemoans “that’s $ 150 of foie gras!” like it’s everyone else’s problem for having bad taste. This is not about teaching men a new skill. There is nothing practical about most of Allen’s cooking, and it’s thrilling to watch men who have never set foot in their kitchens pretend like this is the sort of entertaining they’ll be doing from now on. —Jaya Saxena
Project Runway (Season 10, Episode 2, available on Hulu)
I’m going to admit outright that I had embarked on a journey to rewatch all the Project Runway seasons available on Hulu even before this pandemic started, but now that a lot of us are confined at home for the indefinite future, there are few better background-television choices I can recommend than the original drama-filled fashion competition reality series. One standout episode is the second in Season 10. In “Candy Couture,” the designers raid boutique candy store and New York City staple Dylan’s Candy Bar, snagging licorices, gummies, and jelly beans to create outfits that range from “wow!” to “not bad” to “that?” To hear snatches of catty comments and catch glimpses of a lively, bustling NYC in between footage of designers burning their fingers with hot glue guns — ah, different times. —Jenny Zhang
ZeroZeroZero (Season 1, Episodes 7 and 8, available to stream on Amazon Prime)
ZeroZeroZero, an Amazon Prime series that follows a shipment of cocaine through four countries, has some predictable drug cartel narrative arcs — double crossing, violence and cruelty, me softly saying “it’s just not worth it” over and over again — but one nice change was the Calabrian mob’s dining table mainstays: a hunk of cheese, salami, bread, and wine. When the going gets tough for these guys, they just need a hit of carbs, cured meat, and some salty, creamy dairy, washed down with adult grape juice. Who among us can’t relate?
I wonder who out of the mob grunts makes sure they’re stocked. Are there wheels of cheese in the trunk of their car? Salami hanging from the coat hooks in the back seat? Are they kneading their own sourdough, letting it rest, firing up the wood oven that they just built after feeding some poor sod’s corpse to the pigs? Who cares! These guys are committed to the “simple ingredients, done well” philosophy, and for that, I commend them. — Pelin Keskin
Playtime (available to screen on the Criterion Collection)
I cannot say that I’ve ever experienced a true restaurant shitshow. The closest I’ve come is perhaps witnessing a bartender slip and fall at a restaurant where I received no service for an hour and then got up and left. I sometimes envy my colleagues in New York, who used to regale readers with tales of ninja servers and tunamatos during their annual Shitshow Week (may it rest in peace). But now I can safely say I’ve experienced a shitshow, thanks to the 1967 Jacques Tati film Playtime, currently streaming on the Criterion Collection. This movie is, on its surface, toying with sound editing (if you’re into that sort of thing) and poking fun at the strangeness of midcentury aesthetics and American tourists in Paris. But it’s the second half of the movie where Playtime really hits its comedic stride, at a restaurant opening where just about everything goes wrong. The kitchen runs out of food. The air conditioning stops working. The harsh metal chairs leave marks on the backs of the patrons and rip the pants of servers. The ceiling falls in. While it’s billed as a comedy, it’s the Criterion Collection, so we’ll file it under amusing. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this for anyone missing restaurants — even truly bad ones. What I wouldn’t give for an uncomfortable metal chair right now. — Brenna Houck
Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 10, available to stream on HBO GO)
Absurdist times call for the comedy of Larry David, so I’m particularly grateful that he brought back his HBO hit Curb Your Enthusiasm just in time for an election year and global pandemic. Season 10, which premiered in January after a two-year-plus hiatus, is a comedic buffet of food riffs: Larry reignites his rivalry with coffee-slinger Mocha Joe when he opens a “spite store” called Latte Larry’s directly next door to Mocha Joe’s cafe; Larry realizes he’s consistently seated in the “ugly section” of a trendy Italian spot with a condescending host (played to smarmy perfection by Nick Kroll); Larry and Jon Hamm fight with Richard Lewis about the appropriate allotment of appetizers; Larry wears a MAGA hat to lunch so that his dining mate will cut the meal short; Larry gets a sweaty server (Abbi Jacobson) fired after she shamelessly declares that she’s suffering from diarrhea, then gets diarrhea himself from his favorite licorice; Larry offends the staff of a Catalonian restaurant when he knocks out his tooth and pronounces everything with an unnecessary “th” sound. Then, of course, there’s the season-long debate: What makes a good scone?
If you worry that Curb Your Enthusiasm would seem particularly trite while the world is figuratively on fire — well, it is trite. And it always has been. Nitpicking on life’s small annoyances to the point of embarrassment is kind of the point. — Madeleine Davies
John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (available to stream on Netflix)
John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch is a very tender and funny one-hour comedy special on Netflix lightly satirizing Sesame Street, and everyone with a soul should let it gently touch them. Mulaney stars alongside a cast of impossibly cute child actors and guests like David Byrne, and it’s all built around musical numbers like “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul,” which will probably make you cry, and “Sacha’s Dad Does Drag (and the Act Needs Work!),” which might also make you cry. There are two great food tie-ins, not including the sack lunch of the title. There’s a brief stub of a song called “Let’s Play Restaurant,” in which — when Mulaney plays along — the restaurant is closed for a private event, sorry, you should have checked their website. And then there’s an instant classic of a song that’s near and dear to my heart as a once-upon-a-time very plain-eating child, called a “Plain Plate of Noodles,” in which Orson Hong, a little boy, explains his gastronomic limitations in song and dance. The lyrics! The choreography! Thirty out of 10. — Caleb Pershan