No offense, " Mad Men," nothing personal, " Lost," but the best thing I saw on television last year was "Food Party," a six-episode IFC series that might most easily, if not at all adequately, be described as splitting the difference between Julia Child's "The French Chef" and "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." It began its second season — 20 15-minute episodes showing back to back over 10 weeks — April 27 and it is as strange and delightful, poetic and beautiful, silly and disturbing — and even more ambitious, in its homemade, handmade way — as ever.
Now when I say "best," I'm not using any of the common standards of television arts and sciences; I mean it more in the personal sense of "that's the best dish of ice cream I've ever eaten" or "best day ever" — a thing that fits me on an almost molecular level. There is nothing rational about it. Indeed, in most of the ways that the quality of a TV show is usually reckoned it is conspicuously lacking: The acting is amateurish, the seams show, the sets and everything in them are made of cardboard and glitter, fabric and paint. When creator and star Thu Tran goes under the sea in search of caviar, strings are tied to her hair to make it appear to be floating and soap bubbles suggest being underwater. A little bit of tinfoil, felt and a cigarette turn an actual baguette into Monsieur Baguette, one of the many puppet friends who fill this world. Even the flames on her stove are puppeted.
Born in Malaysia and raised in Ohio, Tran, who is Vietnamese, has a degree in fine arts glass from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where food was already her frequent subject. (She also blogs and tweets about it: e.g., "ate cheeseburger flavored doritos. Even for me, this was weird. Ate the whole bag.")
"Food is about as universal as it gets," Tran said recently, on the phone from the Brooklyn studio where the show is made. "It's a language that everyone speaks. I handle it the same way that I would handle a drawing and I would handle a sentence; to me it's all the same." The imaginary dishes of her television show include a "shaved rabbit's foot caviar necklace, in a bowl," a four-course prix-fixe dinner contained in concentric balloons made from the "notoriously elastic dimetrodon bladder," prepared for the King of the Universe, and spring rolls made out of an evil stepsister.
"Food Party," which ran online before it became actual TV, began as a way to extend the life of Tran's installation art, combined with a desire to "play with the format of how the structure of a television show works, and applying that to making an art video." Mostly, though, "it was kind of like an excuse to hang out" with her college friends in a way that "after hanging out with each other all day we would have something to show for it." These friends, including puppet-maker Danny Baxter, director Zachariah Durr, director of photography Steve Probert, composer Matt Fitzpatrick and artist Peter Van Hyning, who, after Tran, is the human most seen on screen, are still the people who make "Food Party."
Tran, and the project, moved to Brooklyn in 2007. Episodes were shot nights and weekends in her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment and celebrated when done with public-invited parties at the since-defunct food-and-art space Monkey Town. Word got around. "After the third or fourth party, "said Tran, "it was totally packed and maybe only 10 of my friends were there and the rest were all strangers." There was press, including a glowing piece in Grub Street, the food blog of New York magazine, and IFC got in touch.
Each IFC episode of "Food Party" lasts about 10 minutes, roughly as long as a cartoon, and like a cartoon it concentrates its effects and revels in the impossible. The stories have a freewheeling associative quality, as though written by children with adult experiences and sensibilities. (Fairy tale references abound.) In the new season's first episode, which followed Tran through a "normal day," she made spaghetti-and-ham pancakes — the spaghetti was cut like hair from a human head — while watching a soap opera in which M. Baguette had sex with a hamburger bun, which then gave birth to a hot dog bun; she was swallowed by a whale ("Wow it's amazing inside here, there's so many things that you've eaten that looks very joyful"), which disgorged her along with an owl and a package of shrimp; and she acquired the power to spit strawberries, from which she made a sauce for the shrimp. And so to bed.
Tran's endearingly stilted delivery — the product, she says, of "nerves" and "poor memorization skills" — and sometimes exaggerated posturing, embodies the overall aesthetic. There is a superficial resemblance between "Food Party" and some of the things you might encounter in Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming bloc, where an aesthetic of amateurism also reigns. But "Food Party" comes from somewhere else: It is art before it is television, but art rooted in a sense of fun and play, like the "ruckus" environmental constructions of Red Grooms and the Mickey-and-Judy spirit of Dada performance. It also wants to be beautiful, which is not to say pretty. "We're all visual artists," says Tran, "so first it has to look amazing."
Because it is created by people from outside the medium, or the usual tracks to the medium, it stays fresh and surprising. And though the process of making the shows has been professionalized and accelerated — Greencard Pictures, which has also produced music videos for the Dirty Projectors and Devendra Banhart and commercials for Kodak and Sprint, handles production details — it retains the essence of the handmade.
Says Tran, "I think the value of it, in terms of using a nicer camera, or using three cameras at once, or actually having good audio so everyone's miked up properly and having the money to buy more paint or more glue and being able to pay people to work full time, that's all that's really changed. Otherwise, it's basically the same crew, and I'm still writing the stuff I'm interested in seeing and doing."