Two Notes on the Predator Series

After recently watching Prey—the latest installment of The Predator series and a tight, thoroughly-enjoyable action film—I had an epiphany: I had never seen the other movies. At this juncture, I have two of notes on these films.

Note the first:

The early films in this series have a clear thesis: humans ought to abstain from violence, but with some effort and enlisting enough people into the cause we can nip that impulse in the bud.

This is of course not the actual intent. Predators do not abstain from killing innocent or unarmed people because they are avenging spirits who use their technology to punish wrongdoers. Rather, they seem to be engaging in an eternal most dangerous game for which humans are the ideal prey since they exist in a Hobbesian state of nature (aka warfare), thus making the “innocents” an inadequate challenge. Inasmuch as these movies are more about the human characters than the Predators, the first two films offer remarkable social commentary about the United States and what the filmmakers think about humanity.

Note the second:

The success of Prey prompted people online to call for a series of culturally and historically specific Predator films. For instance, one person suggested a film set in Medieval Japan where we meet a Ronin who failed to protect his lord who had been attacked by a Predator. In order to regain his honor he must hunt down and kill the Predator.

My movie pitch goes in a somewhat different direction:

In Predator 2 (1990) a young boy carrying a toy Uzi submachine pistol encounters Predator in a Los Angeles cemetery. Predator’s signature triple-laser targeting system appears on the child, but clicks off when once it is established that the gun is just a toy and the wielder no threat. This establishes (for at least the second time in this film) that Predator only hunts dangerous prey. Once the lasers are gone, the child asks Predator if it would like some candy.

My movie opens with that scene, after which we get a montage that takes us forward between 50 and 70 years. The child becomes obsessed with Predators and their technology, joining government agencies tasked with claiming and improving upon Predator technology. It works, but this monomania caused the sweet, young child who offered Predator candy to become a sociopath and a ruthless tyrant who uses this technology to rule over a country (or even the world: adjust the stakes as necessary). He is a frail old man now, but still ruthless and violently suppresses all challenges to his rule using his improvements to the alien technology. His scheming lieutenants are now vying to become his heir, while he is working with Predator-derived technology to prolong his life.

However, his rule both brutalizes the weak and poses a challenge to the alien Predators, so they have returned to earth to end his rule and in so doing liberate humanity. He is, after all, the greatest prey of all. This film thus holds true to the core of Predator, but inverts its essential structures such that the “villain” is a human who is more technologically advanced than the Predators, while the Predators are now a scrappy underdogs who need rely on their instincts and teamwork to overcome their opponent.

What is Making Me Happy: Marcus, from The Bear

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format an intermittent feature.

This week: Marcus, from The Bear.

Marcus: My first job was McDonalds. You don’t get to be creative, you just work with robots and everything is automatic and fast and easy. I won’t make a mistake again.
Carmy: Yeah, you will. But not ’cause you’re you, but ’cause shit happens.

The Bear 1.5, “Sheridan”

Watching The Bear causes me quite a lot of stress. The show stars Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a rising star of the culinary world who recently returned to Chicago to take over The Beef, an Italian beef sandwich shop after the owner, his brother, committed suicide. Carmy is working overtime just to keep the place afloat while trying to elevate the cuisine, navigating the resistance to change among the existing staff (especially Richie, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), tempering the ambition of his new sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), and, of course, dealing with the loss of his brother.

Something is always going wrong in the restaurant, whether in terms of interpersonal tensions at the worst possible moment or technical failures or a failed health inspection. All of this crests in the seventh episode “Review” where for twenty excruciating minutes you are taken into the absolute chaos of the restaurant. My stress watching this is a testament to the attention to detail brought to the show that brought on flashbacks to my experience managing a restaurant, which I did for a year after college. There are parts of the work that I enjoyed—I really like routines, for instance—but it can be absolute chaos.

The Bear packs an enormous amount into its eight episodes, most of which are less than half an hour long. There is no wasted space. Every moment seems to serve both as a character beat and either a callback to an earlier scene or setting up something that will happen in a later episode, while also packing in a surprising amount of comedy (particularly shout out Edwin Lee Gibson as Ebraheim).

This economy also allows for at least five different characters to carry out their own little arc. Carmy trying to unlearn the toxic lessons drilled into him by abusive chefs and embracing his family trauma is obvious, as are Richie’s gradual setting aside his bluster to acknowledge the depression of divorce and losing his best friend and Sydney’s obvious skill and ambition that push her to repeatedly overreach. But the writers also gave complete arcs to more peripheral characters like Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) who comes to appreciate what Carmy is trying to do and realize that Sydney is not out to get her.

Of course, my favorite of these stories belongs to Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce.

When we meet Marcus, he is responsible for making the rolls for The Beef, and is the first of the existing staff to take to Carmy’s vision for the restaurant. With a little bit of inspiration from Carmy’s cooking materials and some encouragement, Marcus teaches himself to bake cakes that they add to the menu. Then he wants to make doughnuts. Things go wrong, at times because that is the nature of the show (and life), but he just keeps going.

What I love about this arc is the reverence that it receives from both Lionel Boyce and the show’s creators. Marcus is given an infectious enthusiasm for baking, almost to the point of obsession. Once he asks for sous vide bags for a fermentation experiment even though he has no idea what he is doing. At the same time, while the The Beef as a whole is absolute chaos, the shots of Marcus baking are done in almost absolute silence, leaving him in this island of calm as he goes through the steps and making it that much more jarring when that calm is disrupted.

This entire season of The Bear is great and the show lands whether or not it continues for a second season, but Lionel Boyce’s performance as Marcus is particularly making me happy this week.

Some thoughts on small-screen Star Wars

Star Wars is a story that I simply cannot quit, my thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker notwithstanding.

Perhaps this should be expected. I might have seen the original trilogy once in the past decade and a half, but I watched Return of the Jedi so frequently as a teenager that I can recount verbatim entire scenes from the movie. I had more issues with the prequel trilogy, but that didn’t get in the way of hours of late-night debate about the films when I was in college and I devoured dozens of the now-heretical novelizations.

I was cautiously excited to see the return of Star Wars to the big screen, but, although I acknowledge a myriad of ways in which they are superior movies to the original trilogy, they ultimately didn’t land for me. I thought that the newest trilogy ended up creating super-cuts of the original trilogy that largely created an inescapable loop of scenes and beats from the original trilogy, just with a superficially new set of locations and a somewhat more garbled narrative. Basically, this loop prevented pushing the story in new and interesting ways in any meaningful way. I accepted this as a feature of The Force Awakens, but then it happened again in The Last Jedi and I simply skipped The Rise of Skywalker.

And yet, I have found myself pulled back into the latest batch of small-screen Star Wars stories. At the time of writing this, I have seen both seasons of The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and the first four episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

These shows seem more designed for viewers like me, at least on the surface. These are smaller stories by design. I really enjoyed the Space-Western aesthetic of Mandalorian, and the “lone wolf and cub” story arc of season one was appealing even before that cub turned out to be the adorable Grogu. I’d give the season a B/B+. The second season and Boba Fett both had their moments, but I found the stories muddled and uneven.

Which brings me to Obi-Wan. Like these other projects, there are things I like about the series. As much as I was drawn to the Space Western parts of Star Wars, I will admit a little thrill at getting to see the Space Samurai in action again. I also think that the arc that holds the most promise is the internal one of Ben Kenobi himself. We have only ever seen him competent—first as a hotshot padawan, then as a capable general, and finally as a wizened old sage who masterfully uses the force and still goes toe-to-toe with Vader. In this series, Ewan McGregor is playing a man lost. He is a hermit not unlike the one we meet in the original movie, but without any of his surety. He had buried the light sabers and, seemingly, renounced using the force such that, four episodes into a six-episode arc, he is still barely willing to use the simplest little tricks that he used when we first met him. Both the narrative internal to the series and the larger character arc demand that he recovers his mojo before the end of the series, but I quite like the way that the show juxtaposes an isolated and emotionally fragile Jedi with the inchoate but growing resistance to the empire.

But while there are individual aspects of Obi-Wan that I like, I am finding myself questioning what purpose it serves other than as fodder for an insatiable content machine.

In a recent article in WIRED, Graeme McMillan asserted that the fundamental problem with these shows is that they are burdened by the weight of the Star Wars backstory. That is, each story is seemingly approved based on how well it ties back to Ur-text, which, in turn, prevents them from flourishing on their own. We know that Han Solo saved Chewbacca’s life, won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, and did the Kessel Run, so we get Solo. We know the rebels stole the Death Star plans, so Rogue One. What happened to Boba Fett after the Sarlaac? There’s a show for that. Ever wonder what Ben was up to while hanging out near Luke on Tatooine? Get ready for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

As McMillan puts it:

By this point, what truly worked about the original Star Wars movies—the awe of invention and discovery, and the momentum of the propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense behind in the rush to get to the next emotional beat—has been lost almost entirely, replaced by a compulsive need to fulfill nostalgia and comfortably mine existing intellectual property. Whereas those first three movies were the Big Bang that started everything and built a galaxy far, far away, what we’re witnessing now is an implosion of fractal storytelling, with each spin-off focusing on a smaller part of the story leading to a new spin-off focusing on an ever smaller part of that smaller part.

I broadly agree with McMillan’s argument, but also think that the root problem is more than just the unwillingness of adults to suspend disbelief—though that might have influenced the short-lived midichlorian fiasco in the prequel trilogies.

What McMillan attributes to “the awe and invention of discovery” and “propulsive storytelling that left details and common sense design,” I would describe as the legendary nature of the story. Lucas took deep inspiration for the original trilogy from the archetypes found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and the trappings of myth and legend go beyond Luke’s heroic journey. I particularly see this in how the original trilogy situates itself within a larger universe with nods and hand waves. We don’t need to see them to know that they exist. They just are. What does it mean that:

General Kenobi. Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack, and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed.

Doesn’t matter. Waves hand. Move along.

Here’s the problem: legends aren’t well-served by filling in the cracks.

It is one thing to approach a legend from a fresh perspective—the Arthur story from the perspective of Merlin or Morgan or the Theseus story from the perspective of Asterion (the Minotaur). This has been the stock in trade of mythology since antiquity. Legends are fundamentally iterative. But approaching legends this way respects the stories as legends. It doesn’t matter whether the character is familiar when each new story contributes to a polyphonous chorus that defies the logic necessary for a “canonical” story.

By contrast, the current wave of Star Wars projects (and even the prequel trilogy, to an extent) strike me as fundamentally expository. They can be brilliant pieces of cinematography and well-acted (and they often are!), but they are filling in the cracks of the legend and creating new discontinuities in the process. When Vader and Kenobi square off on the Death Star, Vader says “when we last met I was but the learner, but now I am the master.” At the time and through the prequels, this seemed to indicate that they hadn’t met since the events in Revenge of the Sith, but now they fight at least once in the intervening years. This series can only turn out one way if that line is still going to work, but it also spawns a series of follow-up questions that strain disbelief in the original. Similarly, one might ask whether someone is going to completely wipe the memory of young Leia for her to appeal Kenobi on the basis of her father rather than, you know, reminding him that he saved her life once and now she needs his help again.

I am skeptical that either the big or small screen Star Wars will be able to escape this problem. Few of the new characters have been particularly memorable, and most of those that were owed their origins outside of these projects. As McMillan notes, the result has been increasing insularity within the narrative world of Star Wars that relies on familiar names to draw viewers and generally fails to create new characters that can expand and complicate the universe.

All of this stands in contrast to the approach taken in the books set in the untamed wilds of the period after the original trilogy when there was no plan for movies to carry the canonical stories forward. Some of these books are pretty good, some are quite bad, but they collectively built out a rich universe that carried forward the stories of characters from the movies (e.g. Wedge Antilles) while inventing new favorites among both the protagonists (e.g. Corran Horn and the Skywalker children) and the antagonists (e.g. Admirals Thrawn and Daala).

They didn’t worry about filling in the cracks of the legends, but accepted the films as gospel while looking forward to what came next. The result is a series of more compelling questions: how does the Rebel Alliance capture Coruscant (the capitol) when the emperor is dead but his military apparatus is still in place? What would it be like for an alien or woman to rise to the rank of admiral in the notoriously patriarchal and xenophobic imperial navy? What happens when you introduce good guys who for one reason or another dislike Luke Skywalker and Han Solo?

I can understand the reasons why a studio might reject this approach out of hand, of course. For instance, the novels remain deeply reliant on the original characters and there are only so many times that an actor can play the same role. James Bond and comic book characters like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman have survived reboots with different actors, but it has also led to some fatigue with the proliferation of dead parents in an alleyway behind the theater. A closer analogue to Star Wars is its corporate sibling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has not made any attempt to recast Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and thus is itself at a crossroads. Star Wars can hardly replace the much-missed Carrie Fisher, leaving the studio to rely on de-aging Mark Hammill and producing CGI-renderings of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. But this also leaves Star Wars a fragile shell perpetually at risk of collapsing in on itself. To echo Princess Leia in the film that started it all: the more you tighten your grip sometimes, the more that your objective slips through your fingers.

What is Making Me Happy: Byzantium and Friends

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Byzantium and Friends

I am a longtime listener to podcasts, so much so that I wrote one of these entries on the topic way back in 2016. I also once suggested that every history program ought to have a student-run semi-regular podcast where members of the department and alumni could talk about their their research. In addition to being outreach for the program, such a podcast would give students multiple types of experience, as producers, as interviewers, and, of course, talking about their own work. This idea came to me too late in my graduate career to put something in action, though, and I have largely resisted the urge to start a podcast of my own both because I don’t have a clear sense of what I would want the project to do and because I haven’t had time.

Several weeks ago I started listening to the Byzantium and Friends podcast hosted by Anthony Kaldellis thanks to a recommendation on Twitter from Matthew Simonton. Four episodes in, I am already prepared to say that his is what I would want it to look like were I to start a Greek history podcast.

The stated goal of the podcast is to make current research in the diversifying field of Late Antique studies accessible a wider audience such as students and teachers.

Each episode features a conversation between Kaldellis and a guest grounded in something that the guest has written, whether a book or an article, but then flows outward. Kaldellis is adept at guiding this discussion, informed by careful and generous readings of their work, as well as his own scholarship, and a curiosity about trends and different methodological approaches in historical study. Since the goal is explanatory and collaborative rather than critical, I find that the discussion transcends the limits of the specific publication and become about the process of doing history. Some of the resonance stems form the broad similarities between ancient history and Late Antiquity, but other parts are universal to the study of the past. This was particularly true in the fourth episode with Kristina Sessa about environmental approaches to ancient history, which I am going to suggest as an assignment for a World History course next fall, but it was also present in the other episodes—with George Demacopoulos about colonialism and post-colonial theory in the Fourth Crusade, Ellen Muehlberger about imagination, and Leonora Neville on gender.

As much as I love the conversations, though, it is the final question that particularly makes me happy. Kaldellis closes the show by asking the guest for two reading recommendations outside their specific field. This is a show about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, but this closing question reinforces how historians bring a wide range of influences to their work and benefit from looking beyond the narrow bounds of their research. Every time he asks this question I think about how I might answer the question. As I write this, I’m still trying to decide.

In short, this is my platonic ideal of an academic podcast and I would love to see this format proliferate. Even if I had time to take on such a project, though, I could only hope to emulate Kaldellis’ erudite and considered skill as a host so while I could could provide a lengthy list of scholars I would excitedly badger to come talk to me about their work, I will save everyone the embarrassment by just pressing play on episode five.

Adaptation and Authority: Some Thoughts on Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I only managed to watch a handful of episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it initially aired and have since seen a handful of partial episodes when my partner puts it on around the house.

This may come as a surprise given my affection for all things fantasy. While I can appreciate that the show is well-done, with good acting and investment in scenery, too much of what appeared on screen jarred with the story as it appeared in my head. In this sense, my deep investment in the books, which goes back more than a decade when the show came out (I started reading them in middle school), served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the show.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was what one might call hasty at that stage of my life and the adaptation lay in part behind a three-part rant about Hollywood that I posted to this blog.

In the aftermath of that experience I vowed that I simply wouldn’t watch adaptations of books I like. I don’t bear the projects any ill-will, but watching them made me unhappy and made the experience less pleasant for those around me.

Live and let live, I figured.

In the years since then, I have largely avoided such adaptations. I enjoyed the recent Dune film, but I read the book relatively late and so don’t have the same realtionship with it. Further, it is a story that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and ideas and relatively light on plot and character. (For what it is worth, I also thought that the weakest point of the film was the characterization of the side characters who are the ones I gravitated toward in the book.) I suspect, for similar reasons, that I would enjoy the Foundation adaptation on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched becuase I don’t have an account. Likewise, I have enjoyed the Expanse series on Amazon, but, since I watched the series before reading the books, I am getting to appreciate the world of the series expanding in complexity rather than collapsing.

If there is any post-Tolkien fantasy series that has been part of my life longer than Game of Thrones, it is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read the first book in fifth grade, at an age when I found a lot of scenes terrifying. Eight books had been published in the series when I started reading it; by time the ninth book was released I was someone who would reread the entire series in anticipation.

I had a lot more spare time when I was younger.

All of this is to say that I mostly ignored buildup to the Amazon adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Then I started to hear buzz and I gave in.

I approached this adaptation with more of an open mind than I did Game of Thrones. This series has thirteen books that expand quite dramatically in the middle in a way that I love but that generally consensus found distracting, so of course the material would need to be reworked for length and to fit into the structure of a television show. And, to the show runners’ credit, the cityscapes are stunning, the casting works across the board, and there are numerous small touches, some suggested by Brandon Sanderson, that capture the atmosphere of the world.

And, despite it all, I haven’t managed to finish the first season. In the end, there were just too many disjunctures between the books and the series for me to overcome.

Some of these were small changes that I understand but did not love. For instance, Emonds Field in the books is a fairly bucolic place with small-town concerns, only to see that peace broken by the Trolloc attack. This allowed Jordan to complicate it later in the series when the now-worldly heroes (mostly Perrin) return to find their village not as they remembered it. By contrast, the show turned Emonds Field grittier and accelerated “character development” by giving Mat a broken family and Perrin a wife to kill (literally, unfortunately).

Other small changes were fine, but seemed superfluous to me. Hiding the identity of the Dragon Reborn, for instance didn’t add anything in my opinion (calling all of the main characters ta’averen was fine, though). Likewise, I didn’t understand what was gained by moving the introduction of Min Farshaw from Baerlon to Shienar.

Then there were bigger changes. Most notable was the decision to have the people go directly to Tar Valon (which doesn’t happen for some of the characters until book 2, others until book 3, and not at all for others) in place of going to Caemlyn. I have some sympathy for the show runners: introducing the White Tower and the Amyrlin Seat in the first season makes them concrete players from the start.

But this is also where my long familiarity with the books threw up a barrier for me. The Eye of the World is hardly a perfect novel, but it impressively well set up to 1) follow a single coherent adventure from beginning to end and 2) plant seeds that develop as the series goes along. No show can, or should, film a book shot for shot, but I became increasingly frustrated to see these seeds moved or, in some cases, ignored. So, when the show seemed to make a big change involving Mat near the end of Season One, I gave up.

I hope the show finds its audience. The scenery is gorgeous and if people can enjoy what it has to offer, then I wish them well. I just won’t be among them. I could do a point-by-point discussion of what Wheel of Time gets wrong and right, but that misses the point of adaptation and I have little interest in doing such an exercises even if someone wanted to pay me for the time and effort (please don’t).

In short, I find myself back where I started. These shows just aren’t for me. I will enjoy my books, other people can appreciate their adaptations, and that is just fine. These stories don’t belong to me.

Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Life Intrudes

I watch very little unscripted reality TV outside of the Great British Baking Show. I am too young for the Real World phenomenon and have a vivid memory of walking in while my brother and mother watched an early season of Survivor but never really watched that show. I have seen the odd episode of a lot of shows, but I generally don’t find either the contestants or the “game” compelling.

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the current season of Top Chef from the beginning, never having seen a single episode to this point. As I wrote several times, I fell in love with this show. In part, the focus on simple excellence and limited direct competition appeals to my sensibility, but I also found the judges and competitors charming — sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the reality show editing of each episode.

Top Chef: Portland was filmed last year in a bubble and the editing gave the season an isolated quality that reminded me of the GBBO tent. The competition obviously put mental and emotional strains on the chefs, and talking about how much they missed their families were poignant vignettes at a time when travel restrictions kept many people from their families.

Striking this season was the lack of a villain. The contestants seemed to genuinely like one another, particularly by the time the show reached the back half of the season when the smaller number of chefs allowed more air time for each one.

The season finale, which aired this past Thursday, maintained this same atmosphere. The finalists chatted with one another, they each got an assistant from the last three eliminated to make their dream meal, and the all-star guest judges who had joined the bubble made them a meal on the night before judging.

Oh, and they all made incredible food.

The illusion was complete and a winner was crowned. He calls his family and shouts out the largely Latinx kitchen staff at many American restaurants.

And then real life returns.

Reports recently came out that Gabe Erales, this season’s champion, had been fired last December from the Austin restaurant Comedor where he was executive chef for repeatedly violating sexual harassment policies.

(He maintains that he had a consensual relationship with the woman and then reduced her hours because of performance issues, but the restaurant’s owner disputes this account.)

At the same time, Top Chef edited guest diner Eduardo Jordan out of the final altogether after recent allegations of unwanted touching made by fifteen women.

I genuinely enjoyed this season. I was blown away by Dawn’s Nashville Hot Fried Tofu, I want to learn to make some of Gabe’s Moles, and even when they cooked things I never could I appreciated the skills and techniques on display. I also liked that the contestants came off as likable people.

But what one sees on Top Chef — like any reality show — is a fantasy created in the editing room.

This is not to say that it was all feigned. Some aspects of personality are going to shine through, but everyone was also likely on their best behavior throughout filming, knowing that the cameras are rolling. At the same time, the artificially level playing field of a show like Top Chef is going to eliminate the power disparities that can lead to some of the most toxic behavior in restaurant industry — even taking Gabe’s story at face value, his sexual relationship was with someone whose hours he could cut. The result is that Top Chef did not face the same concerns on set that reared their heads back at the restaurant.

Production had wrapped by the time the allegations came out and they couldn’t very well edit the winner out of the show.

Top Chef is great television, but these stories break that illusion. Real life inevitably intrudes on the most idyllic scene. The food might be great, but there is a long way to go in these other areas that, ultimately, matter much more.

What is Making Me Happy: Hemingway

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Hemingway

It should be of no surprise to anyone who has seen my list of favorite novels that I am fan of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. I started reading his work after coming to graduate school, starting with The Sun Also Rises when I was maybe 23 or 24-years old — old enough to appreciate Hemingway’s writing, but young enough to be deeply moved by what a friend of mine describes as a “young man’s novel.” Over the next eight years or so I read most of his other novels and even developing my own idiosyncratic pecking order of his oeuvre. I suspect that nobody, including Hemingway himself, was quite as taken by To Have and Have Not as I was. Something about that flawed book, which I now know doesn’t have have a functional plot because it was a Frankenovel made of two short stories and some connective tissue, just clicked with me on the level of sentence and scene and was an early case of coming to appreciate how writers can improve from their early work.

Naturally, I was looking forward to the three-part Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about Hemingway that I recently watched.

Hemingway is an ideal subject for a Ken Burns project: a character whose life, writings, and tall tales merged to form a thoroughly American myth. To that end, the Hemingway documentary series is a straightforward cradle to the grave documentary that interrogates the relationship between his psychology and literary output, but always handled with a Burnsian breeziness that both mentions the negative aspects but doesn’t dwell on them. This approach often works. For instance, in childhood Hemingway’s mother often groomed and dressed her son to look identical to his sister, a quirk that replicated when Hemingway encouraged his first wife Hadley to do the same with him and that made its way into his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden. The documentary also spends time asking literary scholars about ways that racism of his time works its way through his work, balanced by ways in which Hemingway’s external machismo often cause his gender politics to go overlooked. At the same time, though the breeziness causes instances of domestic violence (at least once physical, quite possibly more frequently psychological) to go underdeveloped.

At its heart, Hemingway is about contrasting the man with the myth. The myth is a macho man who lived a life of poverty in Paris in the 1920s and who, at one point, insists that he is going to take down a German U-Boat with his fishing boat and crack crew of Jai Alai players.

The man is a more complex figure in ways that make him both more and less sympathetic. A philanderer who often lived off the wealth of his wives, but also a man who did not deal well with being alone and often relied on their expertise to produce his art. A hunter and bull-fighting enthusiast who also was sensitive to life. Hemingway also lived many of his later years in Cuba and had sympathies with Fidel Castro’s revolution. Some of the saddest moments came in the third episode when an aging Hemingway living in Idaho was suffering from a neurological disorder that the Mayo Clinic treated him with electro-convulsive therapy that left him effectively unable to keep short-term memories, let alone write, which must have been agony for someone who wrote for hours every day.

I had a few small complaints with Hemingway and some of the beats moved across familiar ground, but I appreciated the series both for a lot of the backstory, including interviews with his son, and as an opportunity to revisit Hemingway’s work.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.