As I’m writing this, I’m binge watching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Currently on season 5. Originally, I had watched the season 1 episodes when they first came out, but after that, things got busy and I was too distracted to watch any television shows. But now with a little bit of lull, I’m trying to catch up on what I’ve missed the past couple of years.
Television shows, in general, aren’t my thing. For one, I don’t have a TV. And more importantly, I’m uninterested in the majority of shows that crop up. (And even if the premise does interest me, I manage to read enough about them to know that they have parts that are too violent, too gory, too disturbing, and too gratuitous for my sensibilities. I’m okay reading about it, because words put a distance between me and the action, but watching it is another thing. I’d have nightmares for weeks.) However, I make an exception for Anthony Bourdain.
I don’t remember how I first came across Bourdain’s previous show, No Reservations. I was probably looking online for food and cooking shows because that’s one of the few genre of shows–I feel–are hard to completely screw up because, you know, food. I came in around season 2 or 3 and stuck around ever since. Bourdain is a bit of a miss for some people because he isn’t as earnest or goody-goody as some other television hosts, but I don’t like him solely because he’s considered a “bad boy” either. There are other bad boy hosts I’m not into because their whole schtick is about being angry and mean. Bourdain, on the other hand, is a bit more cynical and self-deprecating and not afraid of being made the butt of jokes. And aside from that, he seems to genuinely enjoy exploring other cultures and is up for trying anything.
Part of the appeal, I think, is that fact that Bourdain doesn’t hide that he’s a real person who has irritations and quirks and sometimes makes major screwups. Don’t get me wrong, I like other travel shows like Globe Trekker or Rick Steves just fine, but I think they’re targeting a demographic with a different personality. I mean, I can picture Rick Steves doing an interview with Lawrence Welk, but not Iggy Pop. And if Rick Steves decides to go off the beaten path, he’d take a Vespa through wine country. Bourdain, on the other hand, would be totally fine tramping through sketchy places to find some street food. Bourdain has no qualms about digging into the dirty politics, uneasy history, or problematic cultural undertones. Steves and other guides, on the other hand, barely touch on any of this. They either gloss over it or emphasize the Disneyfied, tourist-friendly versions.
Another part of the appeal is that he’s quite aware of the crew that’s also behind the camera and they’re also seen participating in the adventure as well. Other travel hosts studiously pretend that the crew isn’t there. I mean, when you’re traveling doing a television show, acting as if you’re traveling by yourself makes it look fake. For me, the suspension of belief isn’t quite there. Authenticity isn’t just about eating ethnic cuisine at the country of origin prepared by native people. It’s also being true to the conditions of your travel. This is a huge reason why I used his show as an inspiration for one of my NaNoWriMo novels–where I basically took his premise, turned it up to eleven, and made it science fiction, space opera style.
My criticism of Bourdain’s shows mainly rests with the episodes where he’s visiting a famous chef’s restaurant and going all fanboy over his (yes, it’s mostly a male chef with visions of grandeur) avant-garde culinary creations. It’s not really because these restaurants are elite or it’s expensive or that it’s touted as natural and organic and sustainable. It’s because it gives off the impression that this whole sitting in a fancy restaurant eating nicely decorated moss is a stunt. Not the sort of stunt where you jump out of a plane and anything could go wrong, but a staged stunt calculated to elicit a certain reaction with no risk involved. Maybe Bourdain is truly earnest about this new food and not sucking up to these culinary superstars, but I find it the very opposite of what is embodied by the titles No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
Anyways, I do like his shows quite a bit. They’re funny, edgy, and just a little bit outrageous. And at the end of an episode, I usually feel—yes, I do want to try that food or visit that place or talk to those people. Which is a lot better than sleeping through geography class, I can tell you that.