Preoccupied with dramatic favorites like Game of Thrones, Mad Men or Orange Is the New Black, college students are probably not paying much attention to the show that won an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special. Most of my friends wouldn’t know that the winner this year airs on CNN and is hosted by a cynical, 59-year-old man who consumes exotic food for a living. But one of the show’s producers who won this year’s Emmy was College alum Tom Vitale ’86. And even for an audience of our demographic, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown deserves a second look. Since its original airdate in 2013, Parts Unknown has ostensibly proved to be the next step for Bourdain in the plethora of book deals, cooking show appearances, periodical articles and travel-entertainment television that he has down to a science. To better understand Parts Unknown, one must start from the beginning – season one, episode one.
One first hears Bourdain’s voice dramatically read the phrase, “Chances are you haven’t been to this place” – this commentary remains a fixture throughout the show. Immediately, the viewer is bathed in a montage of images from all around the world, over which Bourdain’s unassuming, jeans-wearing figure is superimposed. It may be jarring to viewers who know a little about Bourdain that the first 15 minutes of programming have nothing to do with food. The host instead runs through an elementary history lesson on Myanmar, highlighting decades of censorship, paranoia and repressive regimes. The remainder of the show has a pleasurable back and forth between Wikipedian cultural information and close-ups of food at tables where Bourdain interviews local journalists, musicians and chefs. Occasionally his questions become stilted and patronizing, and the tone of his narration cheesy, but this does not detract from the overall aesthetic quality of Parts Unknown. It’s a cinematographic masterpiece.
With its fondness of slow-motion shots, filters and panoramas, it demonstrates an artistic attention to detail unparalleled among comparable travel programs. Each episode – season three, episode eight in Bahia, Brazil, in particular – contains shots of open-air markets and old quarter streets with the given country’s national music playing in the background. Images worthy of National Geographic decorate nearly every frame, creating an enjoyable mix of light and color. In these terms, it would be hard for most to dislike Parts Unknown; it has universal visual appeal. In fact, anyone with an affinity for the international would find something valuable in the show. But sometimes the oversaturated images get repetitive, and there are few transitions between locales (though perhaps this problem is exaggerated as a result of watching the show online without commercials, as I do). Bourdain too, though a competent enough guide, starts to sound a bit phony when he waxes lyrical about “the real Brazil,” or “authentic [insert nationality] cuisine.”
In a world where travel has become more and more cushy, and countries attempt to widen their tourism industries by offering more luxurious options to pampered, Western travelers, one might find Bourdain, on the one hand, refreshing. On the other hand, most of us will not go liberally eat everything in a street market in Yangon, Myanmar, as much as we’d hate to admit it. It’s one thing to watch his unbridled sense of adventure from the couch, but one can’t help but think that for the majority of people today, travel just doesn’t happen this way. This means that Parts Unknown has become an Emmy-winning informational series while lacking a massive number of people to inform. Even so, the series’s redeeming qualities far outweigh its negative ones, and for anyone wanting a small dossier on a foreign country and its people, as well as 42 minutes of visual stress reduction, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is your show.