I’ve always both loved and hated Anthony Bourdain’s work–his books about food and travel and his TV show (I’ve heard good things about his crime novels, but I haven’t read them). Love: goes to interesting places, eats at places I would actually eat, talks to people who aren’t exclusively ex-pats, good writer, tells the truth as he perceives it (although we certainly differ in that perception more often than not), has wonderful writers like Nick Tosches, Jerry Stahl, and Daniel Woodrell on his show. Love less: the anti-vegetarian schtick (meat is a luxury for most people on the planet, not an everyday commodity!), the fact that he seems only vaguely aware that women, you know, also write books and do stuff, seems entirely unaware that people of African descent live in our nation (never heard of chicken & waffles before Jerry Stahl took him to LA’s Roscoe’s?!?! And has he EVER been to an African American neighborhood in the US?). Most of all on the “love less” list is the fact that, until fairly recently, Bourdain was pretty heavily promoting a kind of pre-packaged consumerist rebellion that I really do not like. If you like cigarettes and leather jackets and a nasty attitude and lots of steak, I don’t object to that–I wholeheartedly support everyone liking exactly what they like. But if you’re going to try to sell that stance off as somehow opposed to the status quo, I’m not buying it. Killing yourself, the planet, and other creatures so that mega-corporations can get even more of your money is not a rebellion! Neither is accepting an old and worn path of “revolution” that never seems to go anywhere except the same old boring circles of blame and slides right into the useless slot assigned such “rebels” by society. In my opinion, loving yourself, staying healthy, making your own choices about how to live, and most of all, realizing that you are a divinely empowered being is the only revolution that counts. But over the years Bourdain seems to have dropped some of the “rebellion” and appears to have been humbled by his travels, and I’ve come to like him more and more.
His new season of “No Reservations,” though, is so far like a deconstructed, depressed, melt-down of a travel show. So far he’s been to Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Haiti, some of the poorest countries in the world, where he’s eaten at refugee camps, closed restaurants, and terrible-looking roadside stands. In Nicaragua he visited a garbage dump where people live and, clearly devastated, was filmed getting drunk and depressed in a bar that night. At the garbage dump he kept saying things like “I don’t want to sound like Sally Struthers, but…” or “This isn’t Save the Children, but…,” as if he didn’t have words for compassion without cynicism. Later he examined–and found lacking–his own understanding of leftist politics. In Cambodia, he admitted (in so many words) that he’d gone with the entirely wrong approach on previous visits, and far from offering some kind of pithy summary at the end he confessed that no summary was possible: it was wrong to try to figure Cambodia out or distill it to its essence–the central cliché of travel television. It’s like he’s taken the idea of a travel show and inverted it into some kind of anti-show; a kind of statement on economics and power and television and, maybe most of all, on one man who seems (and I know TV lies) truly stunned by what he’s seen over the years–and perhaps wounded in the best possible way.
I have a strange feeling this will be his last season, so enjoy it while you can.