With the release of Last Chance U, Michael Pollan’s Cooked, the recent bull-riding series Fearless, and a new spinoff season of its vanguard Chef’s Table (Chef’s Table: France) all this year, Netflix’s documentary series slate has grown considerably. And while they’re each distinct shows, they also share a particular style — they are deliriously, stubbornly slow.
You see, each of these series has a powerful fondness for the slo-mo shot. If you watch only one, it could be easy to see the slow motion as a strongly individual style. The first episode of Last Chance U, for instance, begins with a series of slo-mo shots that last nearly two minutes, first presenting a painstakingly deliberate, dreamlike vision of a brawl that breaks out on a football field, and then cutting to several shots that slowly zoom in and out on individual players’ faces.
And then you turn on Fearless, and suddenly the distinctive deliberation of Last Chance U no longer feels so unique. Where Last Chance U uses the slo-mo technique frequently, Fearless uses it almost reflexively, as though slow motion is the default speed for any character-building, tension-forming moment. Bull rider enters stadium to great applause? Slo-mo. Bull rider rides bull? Slo-mo.
Bull rider walks away from the stadium, or contemplates his dangerous sport, or prays in a church, or hugs someone, or spits? You guessed it.
This slow-motion love affair is also apparent in Netflix’s Cooked, which often uses nearly pornographic slow-motion images of food preparation to accompany Michael Pollan’s voice-overs. And it’s especially true for Chef’s Table, the oldest of these three shows, which picks up the style of its creator’s acclaimed documentary feature, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Intercut with talking-head interviews and footage of local produce being thoughtfully groped in busy marketplaces, Chef’s Table follows its culinary geniuses as they move through their kitchens. They artfully smear a sauce on a plate, tenderly place a piece of fish on top of a beautiful bed of greens. They do it all in leisurely slo-mo, some of it so slow that you can see the food actually settle and slump as it’s gently nestled onto the plate.
Documentary slo-mo is hardly limited to Netflix series. And two of Netflix’s docuseries, Chelsea Does and Making of a Murderer, don’t share this style. Still, it’s easy to see why it’s used so much. The aim of most documentaries is to make it possible to see things we don’t normally see, and to have access to stories and people and places we’d never otherwise find. Slow motion is that same idea translated into cinematography. The world of professional bull riding is mysterious and unseen for many Americans, but not only is Fearless going to let you enter this new world, it’s going to let you see it in a way your normal human eyes never could. In the same way, a David Attenborough documentary uses slow motion to capture the precision of a fox leaping into the snow to catch prey, or a lion catching a gazelle. It’s like having a superpower, like being able to suddenly look at subjects and experience time in a God-like way — you see everything.
Slow motion lets us feel omnipotent, and that same message also swings in the other direction. The premise of any slo-mo shot is that the subject — these football players, these bull riders, this celebrity chef — is worthy of this loving, wondering, hagiographic dawdling. Each slow-motion sequence is implying an answer to a question, and each question is something like, “Who are these amazing people?” “How do they do that?” “What are they thinking?” Unlike a novel, which can give us access to the inside of a character’s brain, film and TV doesn’t have many options for presenting interiority. Instead, we get slo-mo footage of faces, and the very existence of those shots is a promise that their subjects are worthy. Here’s something remarkable, slow motion says. Let’s really pay attention.
It’s here, when we look at the overwhelming number of slow-motion shots as well as the things they focus on, that the Netflix slow-motion style starts to reveal something these shows might not intend. You watch Cooked, and then Last Chance U, and several episodes of Chef’s Table, and then you get around to Fearless, which puts the nail in the coffin: These four most recent Netflix docuseries are incredibly male.
It may just be a fluke. Chef’s Table does have four episodes that focus on women (… out of 16). There are a few cheerleaders in Last Chance U, and one prominent female educator. Cooked occasionally swings past women doing food prep. But these series, and especially the lavish, abundant slow-motion footage they default to in moments of great attention, are remarkable glorifications of maleness — the male body in Last Chance U and Fearless; the male mind in the two food series. And in all of them, beautiful adulating slow-motion shots of men’s hands, rolling dough. Men walking down streets. Men just standing there, staring off into the sunset, their heads turning toward the horizon with the excruciating slow pace of a kids' movie gimmick.
Maybe we are more comfortable looking at men’s bodies (and often, imagining their minds) in a sensually slow way without worrying that we’ll slip into sexualization and objectification. Maybe it is that the male mindset is so seemingly opaque — particularly the deep mysteries of why a man would pursue a life-threatening sport, or how he becomes a food genius — that we need images of their bodies to fully illustrate their selves. Their words, apparently, are not enough.
Or maybe the inescapable masculinity of these series is a fluke of production and development, and Netflix will soon bolster its docuseries offerings with a long run of similarly unambiguous, admiring slow-motion footage of women doing unusual things.
I hope so. But I doubt it. There’s something so straightforward and indulgent about documentary slow motion, even more so when it’s deployed as often as these series use it. And traditionally, we have reserved that kind of openly admiring eye for subjects like majestic wildlife, and things we can categorize as solemn and poetic, or fascinatingly quirky, or maybe female but in a highly choreographed way. The implication of so many of these slo-mo shots of men is that they are natural and authentic, and worthy of our extended attention almost regardless of what they’re doing — how else can you explain a slow-motion shot of a man spitting on the floor? There does not seem to be much room for similarly slow, languorous, and unquestioningly approving slow-motion footage of women. Slow-motion ballerinas are gorgeous, but there’s less room for slow-motion women just walking down a hallway or staring thoughtfully at the horizon.
Until there is one day, these four Netflix series will all give you lots of very beautiful, very slow sequences of men doing remarkable things. There are men placing food on plates with extreme care, and men who’ve experienced tragedy and stare at the camera with pain and vulnerability. Men who fall off of bucking bulls and men who reinvent food as new forms of art. Sometimes, on the periphery, there are women who smile at them and cheer. And while you watch these shows, the slow-motion sequences will give you ample time to reflect on why that might be.