Parts Unknown, No Reservations…and The Layover

Being a person whose TV consumption is largely beholden to Netflix, I am always excited when new episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows are added and doubly so when it adds new seasons of “Parts Unknown”, his CNN show. Junkie that I am, I watched all the episodes of “The Layover,” his second Travel Channel show. The premise of “The Layover” is that Bourdain lays out the types of things he would do if he had 36 to 48 hours in a city, how he would get around, where he would stay, and what he would eat. Instead of copious B-roll, there are also brief clips of interviews with locals to get their impression of the town and where to go and what to eat. Bourdain serves as a sort of specialized travel guide.

“The Layover” is not particularly good T.V., but I did watch every episode available to me. Some of the problems stem from the appearance that Bourdain mailed in a lot of the episodes and his demeanor, usually cranky and sarcastic, but still usually gracious and good-natured, became bitter and caustic. Nor did the compressed time frame, giving it the helter-skelter appearance that travelers are all too familiar with, help the aesthetic of the show. Further, the determination to lay out options for, say, getting from the airport to a hotel based on both time and money and a variety of hotels based on cost laid the groundwork for a show to revolve around how much this layover excursion is going to cost. Add these things together and it is the perfect storm for Bourdain to invariably take the more expensive option, all the while noting it is on someone else’s dime, and breaking up his rundown of great gastronomic experiences in order to find any bar in the city that has Pappy van Winkle.

Given the format and focus of the show, I can’t blame Bourdain, either. It just doesn’t make for great TV. Despite these complaints, the bigger (semi-related) problem is that “The Layover” is unbearably repetitive, with the same formula and concerns in each episode.

If “No Reservations” or “Parts Unknown” were strictly shows about food or cooking I would not be nearly as interested in watching. I enjoy how the shows focus on food, the people who make the food, and the relationship between food and life, but, frankly, Bourdain is not great at describing what he is eating aside from his dedication to muffled declarations of appreciation. What he does do well is describe the ingredients of a dish and discussing how it is made and the crew of the show does a great job of complementing this sort of description with beautiful shots of both the food being prepared and the final product. This sort of camera and production work then bleeds over into the rest of the show. They use an enormous amount of B-roll, for the food, the people, and the places and then edit it together into a beautiful episode.

This style is not an accident, but a feature of the show. When he was on the Nerdist podcast (if I remember the interview correctly), Bourdain discussed some of the artistic decisions in making episodes and particularly how they have a tendency to model episodes on classic films and to spend their prep time reading books, including a lot of literature, about their destination. The idea was both to get a sense for the aesthetic sensibility of the place and to capture something elemental about the people and culture there. Bourdain gets to do and eat some things that most people would never have the opportunity to because of resources and connections that are not readily available to most people and some of these likely cost a great deal, but still other things shown are street food options that probably cost less than eating at McDonalds. The price of these things is not the point and to focus on the cost would diminish the whole enterprise. There are restrictions on what can be done, of course, and there is an overarching celebration of people and places that remains constant throughout, but each episode is its own thing–and rarely is there a shot of the hotel or hotel room, let alone the taxi ride between the hotel and the airport. “The Layover” felt like work–pleasant enough work, but work nonetheless. “Parts Unknown” is art.

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