Once upon a time travel shows were the only form of television entertainment more unapologetically dishonest than the Glenn Beck Show. No matter where they went or what they experienced, the hosts gritted their teeth, looked into the camera, and told you how fabulous it was. The insight and doubt that travel should produce was shunted aside, replaced with ever-twinkling wonderment.
They were bad and I should know. I was addicted to them. They were my American Idol or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and I couldn't look away.
Then some loose cannon at the Travel Channel gave Anthony Bourdain, chef, writer, former drug addict, and possible sociopath, approval to make his own show. He smashed the travel show formula and stubbed out a cigarette in the wreckage. While Bourdain ate and drank his away around the world, No Reservations opened new possibilities for honest reflection on politics and social issues that have never before existed on travel TV. The show launches its final season this week, but it leaves in its wake new openings for authentic television.
Travel shows have traditionally been bound by a skull-numbing formula. It worked like this: [Insert smiling host] stands in front of [insert ancient monument] holding forth in unquestioning, un-ironic prose on the sheer meaningfulness of it all, the golly-gee, gosh-darned glory of just being there.
Interspersed between the panoramic shots were tidbits of pseudo-information. You'd hear such veteran advice as "wear comfortable shoes" or "pay a little extra for a good backpack."
If they decided to get raw they might take in a display of native dance...at the hotel. While enjoying the performance, perhaps they'd put their adventurous spirit on display by accepting a gracious and entirely unscripted invitation to join the locals briefly on stage. What fun!
The only alternative was the "edgy" version of the formula, which was usually hosted by some high-minded college-age kid who "gets to know" the places they visit through earnest slumming. Those shows favored dusty, miserable outbacks whose charm usually lay in being too poor to support a McDonald's. The hosts questioned nothing they saw while piously tsk-tsk-ing at places "globalized" by the scourge of potable tap water and grocery stores.
Regardless of the format or the host, travel shows accidentally raised all sorts of questions that they stubbornly refused to acknowledge, much less answer. Do you ever get sick on location? How hard is it live there? What do those people hope for? Do they get to vote? What's it like outside the resort? Is that guy gay? What do they think of us? What's it like to actually live in such a radically different place?
If the hosts ever doubted their eyes they kept those concerns to themselves. Whatever they may have felt about their experiences, they never openly questioned the accepted travel show narrative about charming poverty or the corrupting influence of "Western" development. While the cameras rolled they swallowed what they were fed, smiled, and told us it was glorious.
Then along came Bourdain. He had the punk-rock audacity to film a show in Paris without a visit to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre (the show was titled "Why the French Don't Suck"). Bourdain got drunk and cussed and complained about the weather. He didn't shirk from describing the lousy experiences amid the fantastic.
He failed at fishing and he stubbornly refused to dance. Animals were regularly slaughtered, dismembered, and eaten onscreen. No pig was safe. He ate food from street vendors and then made jokes about getting sick (except for the Liberia episode, when the bout of runny belly apparently wasn't so funny).
He courageously confronted the Swedes about Abba.
Politically, No Reservations managed to challenge American preconceptions about the wider world without resorting to the standard condescending apologetics. In Texas he gave Ted Nugent a serious opportunity to explain himself, in his own tangled words. In Nicaragua he visited a garbage dump crawling with child laborers, pointing out that Communist era dictator and current President Daniel Ortega is now personally worth nearly $400m.
His episodes in places like Liberia and Haiti openly confronted the absurdity and moral ambiguity of what he was doing - recording travel entertainment in the midst of unfathomable horrors. He showed the darkness without schlock or exploitation. He highlighted our interconnectedness while still acknowledging the inherent voyeurism of TV.
After completing No Reservations on the Travel Channel he'll begin a new gig for CNN. Moving up from a minor cable channel to America's news leader is a well-deserved and promising promotion, but a tough thing to pull off.
Will a CNN audience appreciate Bourdain's drunken, obscenity-laced observations? Will he still be interesting after CNN files down his rough edges? Whose cable career arc will he more closely emulate, Jimmy Kimmel's or Craig Kilborn's? It hardly matters. By opening up an entire genre to new possibilities he's already made his mark on television.