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Consuming Enlightenment: Jeremy Piven's India

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It is both an unfair and mundane truism that most travel shows are of spurious quality. With rare exceptions, the typical travel show host appears plastic, with an ironed-on smile and positive disposition that reeks of a corporate-sponsored inauthenticity. There are, naturally, some rare and notable exceptions.

Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" is the preeminent example: Bourdain appears genuine whenever he enjoys, or alternatively, does not enjoy a particular encounter or location (see his trip to Romania for confirmation of the latter). For me, this is the principal aspect of the show's appeal: the commercial success and popularity of the program's host bestows him with the creative control to be (mostly) forthright about his prejudices and prior dispositions, and thus offers his genuine impressions of any particular locale. I argue that, as tourists, we owe it to ourselves, and any potential audience (be they friends, family, etc.), to be forthright about any prejudices or biases we bring with us when we travel somewhere, and how they might impact our journey. There are, however, some limits to this disclosure.

My scorn for (most) travel shows does not prohibit me from occasionally venturing out of my Bourdain-comfort bubble and seeking something new. Recently I viewed the Travel Channel special Jeremy Piven's Journey of a Lifetime. The comedian best known for playing the narcissistic, testosterone-replete agent Ari Gold in HBO's Entourage made a several-part documentary about his journey through India earlier last year. The thematic parallels between this special and other efforts such as Michael Palin's "Himalaya" are obvious: Piven, like Palin, is known primarily as a comedic figure of the entertainment industry, and thus, I believe expectations for his travel documentary are different from someone like Bourdain, who produces travel television as his main profession. The curious nature of the comedian moonlighting as a travel documentarian raises a number of interesting questions.

There is one particular scene in Piven's Journey that left a particularly memorable impression: the screen frantically offers images of chaotic Delhi street life, complete with food stalls, crowds, cows, etc. Moments later, Piven mocks a barber's shop as well as the Indian men standing inside it, requesting a "mullet haircut without the mullet" in reference to one of the cuts offered by the local barber. Piven surely has no malicious intent, and is merely attempting to produce an entertaining program that is appealing to viewers back home. However, does the host's principal role as comedian absolve him of blame for promoting a potentially-offensive caricature of his subjects? Do we expect the comedian to produce the same caliber of travel show as more established travel documentarians? Or, alternatively, are we more tolerant of Piven's occasional Orientalist indiscretions because he is a comedian? Moreover, with my aforementioned preference for travel hosts being genuine with their audience, is my unease with this scene hypocritical?

If we read Piven's actions in this scene as merely a comedian being a comedian, these questions have little relevance. However, if we read Piven as a privileged Western traveler experiencing some degree of "culture shock" in a strange country, I am forced to consider his documentary in a new light. To Piven's credit, there is a certain authenticity in the host revealing an uncensored version of his encounters that is often sorely lacking from most travel shows. That said, as much as I reject the plastic travel host who unabashedly receives every encounter, every taste, every sight with indiscriminate enthusiasm, I also reject the host who treats his/her subjects with disrespect. Though this is not my main quibble with Jeremy Piven's special.

The documentary's arc follows an oft-repeated trajectory of the Westerner seeking, constructing, and consuming some sense of "enlightenment" out of a journey East. I will not offer "spoilers" at this juncture, but if you have seen Eat, Pray, Love chances are good you get the picture. In another memorable scene, Piven requests either "a mantra, or an Indian name" (apparently either will do) from a particularly well-known swami. For this writer, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time in India and been exposed to its unique climate of Western spiritual thirst, this scene is a familiar one. For many visitors to India, the enlightenment so eagerly sought is constructed and consumed, instead of experienced organically.

Despite many entertaining moments interspersed throughout, Jeremy Piven's Journey of a Lifetime ultimately paints a tired portrait of India: chaotic and worthy of mockery, though benevolent and somehow "enlightening." The trick of the travel documentarian, it seems, is to somehow paint an original and engaging portrait of a particular locale, while at the same time offering full disclosure with regards to the lens through which the locale is being perceived. Jeremy Piven's Journey of a Lifetime achieves only the latter.