TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. A new eight-part TV series called "Drops Of God" is about a competition between a French woman and Japanese man to inherit the world's most valuable wine collection. The first two episodes of this multilingual show dropped Friday on Apple TV+. Our critic at large John Powers says that it's an engrossing tale that's as much about inheritance as wine.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're looking for the plot that's the surest to suck people in, you could do worse than centering on a contest, be it "Rocky," "Pitch Perfect" or "Squid Game." Such stories possess a built-in suspense and drama. They make us ask, who's going to win? This question comes luxuriously bottled in "Drops Of God," a pleasurable new Apple TV+ miniseries set in the world of upmarket wine with its connoisseur vintages, voluminous snobberies and undercurrents of business chicanery. Although the basic idea is taken from a hit Japanese manga, the show is a French-made production that changes the story in huge ways. Where the comic ran a seemingly endless 44 volumes, the series clocks in at eight episodes, and amazingly, it actually ends there. More importantly, the series changes the lead character from a Japanese man to a French woman.
The plot begins with the death of Alexandre Leger, a powerful French wine critic based in Tokyo. He leaves behind him an 87,000-bottle cellar worth nearly $150 million and an exceedingly manipulative will. To decide who shall inherit his estate, Leger has devised three nearly impossible tests that range from identifying arcane vintages to teasing out clues hidden in a painting. The contestants are the two people he seemingly cared about most. First is his estranged daughter Camille, played by Fleur Geffrier, whose palate Alexandre trained so fanatically as a little girl that she turned against wine. The other is his protege, Issei Tomine - that's Tomohisa Yamashita - a cool, self-possessed young man who comes from a haughty, highborn family that hates his interest in wine. Where Issei is analytical and erudite, the more emotional Camille knows almost nothing about wine but was born with a palate so sensitive that during the contest, she gets called the Mozart of wine. Give her a taste, and she plunges into a surreal headspace, rather like Anya Taylor-Joy's chess whiz in "Queen's Gambit."
Awash in paparazzi, this high-stakes contest carries the competitors from sleek Tokyo mansions to picturesque French vineyards to ancient Italian cities. It also takes them into the past, as both Camille and Issei must unpack painful family histories that change how they see themselves and their futures. Even as each encounters fresh romantic possibilities, the show uses Camille's ignorance of wine to help show us its charms and rituals. Here, in order to get a sip from a rare bottle, she must pretend to be a sommelier, so two sommelier friends show her how it's done.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DROPS OF GOD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The wine you're going to serve is sensitive. It shouldn't be decanted. You should open it and get Mr. Matsubara to try it straight away. No. 1 - you introduce the wine with the label facing the customers. Two - you announce the wine.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Three - you cut the foil just beneath the lower lip of the bottleneck. It's the knife that turns, not the bottle, so that the client always gets to see the label. You wipe the edge of the court to wipe off any potential mildew. Then you plant the corkscrew in. When the screw is properly embedded, anchor the first notch onto the bottleneck. Lever it to extract the cork. Do the same at the second level, and finish with your hand for more discretion. And avoid the pop, which is too aggressive.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Sorry.
POWERS: Now, "Drops Of God" is a high-gloss drama, expensive, lushly shot and skillfully acted, even if Camille and Issei are characters tinged with cultural cliche. It's almost the opposite of the original manga, written by the brother-sister team of Yuko and Shin Kibayashi, which is delightfully goofy and freewheeling. Although serious about wine, they use humor to counteract their fetishism of famous wineries and vintages. Not surprisingly, this French version takes a more serious approach. Wine is essential to France's national identity, which may explain why the show's vision of wine sometimes becomes almost sacramental. Clearly hoping to avoid the charge of wine porn voyeurism, "Drops Of God" makes a point of telling us that the true meaning of wine isn't found in its posh labels but in the way drinking it binds people together. Of course, a couple of minutes after somebody says this, the show cracks open a bottle that will cost you 600 bucks.
It's always delicate to transpose a story from one culture to another, and part of what makes "Drops Of God" fascinating is seeing how the series finesses the fact that the contest must produce a winner. After all, if Camille wins, the show will have appropriated a manga about two Japanese contestants, then transformed it into a story about France's unbeatable superiority in wine - not cool. If Issei wins, the show risks alienating France by suggesting that a Japanese wine expert is greater than a Frenchman with the intuitive genius of a Mozart - impossible. Deep into the series, the lawyer who's executing the will says that he's overseen many such battles and that they never end well for either the loser or the winner. Legacy, he says, is a tragedy. By the end of the show's slightly hokey final episode, we not only find out whether the lawyer is right, but we learn what we really want to know all along. Who's walking away with the wine?
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new Apple TV+ series called "Drops Of God." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with actress Keri Russell and author David Grann or our tribute to songwriters Kander and Ebb, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to find out what's happening back in the FRESH AIR offices, suggestions from our producers and links to the week's interviews and reviews, subscribe for free to our newsletter, written by two of our producers. I love reading it every Saturday morning when it arrives in my email. You'll find the link at freshair.npr.org. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE TASTE")
DAVE FRISHBERG: (Singing) A little taste might hit the spot. A little taste might help a lot. It may be nice and may be not. In my condition, this is a risky proposition. A little taste might pave the way. It has been known to save the day. One little taste might be OK. It's a sedation good for a sticky situation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.