Why Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’ Is As Good As Any ‘Prestige TV’

CNN

OK, sure, yes, there’s too much TV. But that’s a problem only if you’ve lost your appetite. One of the pleasures of being a consumer in this munificent era is that there is always something worth watching, even when it has slipped below the critical radar or fallen out of Twittery favor.

This was certainly the case for me yesterday. Sundays have become the biggest night on the small screen, the showcase for the shiniest fare from the noisiest networks. Last night was even more crowded than usual, thanks to a big-ticket NFL game and a face-freezing baseball playoff that occurred more or less in my backyard. And yet I found myself turning away from the hard emoting of The Leftovers and the soft feng shui of The Affair and curling up instead with an old friend, one that never lets me down and one that, for some reason, I rarely write about: CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

True, non-scripted fare isn’t really my thing, though this is a wobbly argument since I know for a fact that Bourdain personally agonizes over every line of voice-over that he records. The real reason for my silence on the matter is likely consistency. Bourdain has been roaming the globe on-camera pretty much uninterrupted since 2001 and during that time the pleasures of his various programs – from Food Network to Travel Channel and, since 2013, CNN — have been both dependable and exquisite. Finding a specific moment to celebrate in the hundreds of hours of drinking, swallowing, and exploring can be tough: Do I champion the time Tony tore the lid off the incredible tradition of Spanish canned seafood? Or the time he got Japanese tentacle porn the same amount of bandwidth usually reserved for Wolf Blitzer’s beard? Perhaps it should have been Bourdain’s visit to Jerusalem in 2013, which, to this day, remains the single best hour of television I’ve seen on the knotty subject of the Middle East.

Have you watched it? You should. By focusing on shared values, particularly food, Bourdain was able to illuminate the everyday life of a region that is all too easily overlooked in the choking haze of explosions and rhetoric. But it was his refusal to reward empty platitudes or neat resolutions that truly set Bourdain apart from all other televised talking heads. Though originally known for being an abrasive cook, Bourdain has brilliantly remade himself as an exceedingly polite guest. He arrives in each locale with a mind as empty as his stomach. The format of Parts Unknown is documentary but its messy heart is beautifully subjective. It believes in questions, not answers; appetite, not satisfaction. Like the very best narrative television, Parts Unknown gives its audience much to chew on. Whether you find it digestible is entirely up to you.

To be clear, last night’s episode of Parts Unknown, “Bay Area,” was not one of its strongest. San Francisco is, in fact, extremely well-known to Bourdain and his crack crew from Zero Point Zero productions — he’s been there at least once for every one of his programs, including the servicey, underrated The Layover. By now, his paeans to the city’s busted, boozey glory are as familiar as his growing collection of tattoos. Even casual fans know to order the crab backs at Swan Oyster Depot. Even vegans can laugh at the seitan jokes. Making matters worse was that the entire hour seemed a bit like a run-around. Bourdain has fallen — repeatedly and hard — for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and despite all the talk of gentrification and civic soul, the episode really seemed like an excuse to write off some arm bars as a business expense.

So while I could have done without the scenes in which Bourdain introduced his mulleted coach to the glories of Daniel Patterson’s tweezer food, they did get me thinking. One of the glories of Parts Unknown is its anti-linearity. In an age of binge-watching, it’s wonderful, on occasion, to just snack. Episodes can be watched in any order, and at any time. Bourdain would call his travels “journeys,” but to the beleaguered TV fan, they could easily be categorized as escapes.

Still, I’d argue that one can — and should — view nontraditional triumphs like Parts Unknown through the same critical lens used to consider the prestige scripted dramas that populate the other channels on Sunday nights. I mean this in two ways. First, it’s absolutely possible to view the past 14 years of Bourdain TV as a remarkable character study. In real time, audiences have watched Tony Bourdain, professional bad boy and admitted screw-up, mature into the station that the culture at large was eager to provide him. Long gone are the earring and the ill-advised finger rings. Happily forgotten is the resentful defensiveness born of decades of making omelettes rather than art. The Tony Bourdain who scammed Food Network into sending him to Japan for free sushi is unrecognizable in the kind-eyed father who, last year alone, tried to make sense of the Iranian legal system and told his own truth in a room full of former heroin abusers in Massachusetts.

In a sense, Bourdain was grappling with more than steroidal dot-commers last night. His sweaty tussle in a San Francisco gym was just the latest iteration of a long, televised wrestling match with himself. To travel anywhere, especially someplace unknown, requires an enormous amount of ego (“I know I can do it!”) and an equal amount of humility (“I know I don’t know anything!”). That Tony Bourdain had to circumnavigate the globe multiple times to find himself isn’t necessarily noteworthy — thousands of Australian teenagers do it every summer. The fact that he has generously allowed us to share the journey, however, is. More than firewater and street meat, Parts Unknown is about one man’s ongoing attempt to find his internal self in the midst of a vibrant, external world. Does this sound like the logline for every celebrated drama of the last 15 years? Kind of, yes. But while Tony Sopranos can be abandoned to a fugue state and Walter White’s Winnebago eventually ran out of road, Bourdain, being nonfictional, can continue to evolve in peace and (relative!) sobriety. Thus, the most fascinating thing to track on his show isn’t the restaurants he chooses — although, yeah, I’m happy to notice those too — it’s the deepening of Bourdain’s curiosity and humility. A scripted show built solely on wishy-washy terms like that wouldn’t even make it to pilot. But in Season 6 of Parts Unknown, its protagonist still wants to know everything and is at peace with the fact that he never, ever will.

Curiosity and humility are challenging emotions to capture in a teleplay. The former is vague, the latter is passive. Yet I would argue that they are absolutely necessary to good storytelling — now more than ever. One of the downsides of television’s turn toward the auteur model, in which one writer’s passions are indulged above all, is that those passions tend to be fiercely internal. Character ought to be paramount in television writing, but emotional roller coasters are nothing without a solid, physical context in which to ride them. A specific place leads to more specific characters, which, in turn, lead to more realistic, tangible emotions. If you doubt me, check out any of David Simon’s series, or SundanceTV triumphs like Top of the Lake, Deutschland 83, and Rectify. I’ve never been to New Zealand, or Bonn, or rural Georgia. But I feel like I learned something about myself by undertaking the metaphorical journey.

Certainly the budget priorities for a travel show on CNN and a cable drama are different. (There are reasons most scripted shows film in Los Angeles, New York or, increasingly, Atlanta, and those reasons are “tax credits.”) But a series like Homeland sure could use a Tony Bourdain in its writers’ room, or at least on call. Last week, news broke that local artists, hired to “add authenticity” to scenes set in a Syrian refugee camp, had actually spray-painted messages like “Homeland is racist” and “Homeland is a joke.” (The scenes, like the rest of Homeland Season 5, were filmed in Germany.) That no one noticed this sabotage until the episode actually aired in the U.S. is a vicious indictment of the sort of cultural tourism that many domestic productions engage in. Hollywood wants to tell stories about terrible things happening to Americans but remains frustratingly uninterested in the lives or motivations of those non-Americans who are doing them. Homeland is far from the worst offender — I’d argue that the show nearly always tries to complicate its stories and, eventually, its antagonists. But what happened last week strikes me as an inevitable side effect of a storytelling culture built on shocks and reaction as opposed to open-minded engagement. That the world is a frightening place is a natural starting point for a dramatic story. But that point shouldn’t be a period.

From serial unfaithfulness to serial killing, television in the 21st century has shown a dogged commitment to uncovering the darkest corners of the human condition. But Parts Unknown stands as an important reminder that, for the majority of the planet, the human condition is defined less by psychology and more by pressing, physical concerns like hunger, violence and basic survival. That Tony Bourdain can find compelling stories in places as disparate as an Oakland strip mall and a North Vietnamese tunnel is great news for his viewers and his bosses at CNN. But to his contemporaries in the writers’ room all across that dangerous, predator-filled region known as Los Angeles, it ought to be a challenge.

Filed Under: TV, Parts Unknown, The Layover, Anthony Bourdain

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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