You should be watching Anthony Bourdain’s new television show on CNN. It’s titled Parts Unknown and it looks a lot like his old show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations.
This is a good thing. When he left the Travel Channel for CNN I feared that one of television’s most insightful voices was going to disappear into the abyss that is Wolf Blitzer’s awersome beard. However, this was not so as evidenced by the first episode of the show that premiered this weekend. Just the fact that the first episode focused on Myanmar, you might know it as Burma, is reason enough to give the show a chance.
Once you get past Bourdain’s bad attitude chef persona—read the now-infamous Kitchen Confidential to get an idea of what I am talking about—his work on television has been mostly excellent. The episode of No Reservations that took place in Beirut during the resumption of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel was, in my opinion, a pitch perfect lens through which to view the odd spectacle of modern armed conflict. It was silly and random and strange and macabre all at the same time.
The new show takes the best elements of No Reservations, cuts out some of the antics—witness the focus on late night escapades during one alcohol fuelled binge in Montreal, and injects some much needed perspective. This is not just a travel show or a food show or a politics show…it’s some kind of hybrid that works real well because it shows us that, on the whole, people are pretty damn similar the world over. Sure, the food we eat is different or the clothes we wear are different, but the vast majority of us are just trying to get through the days with a little flavor and beauty.
Kicking it off with a bang in Myanmar is a statement. There are few countries less transparent to the West than Myanmar, maybe North Korea or some nations in Africa or central Asia. Outside of Aung San Suu Kyi, most of us have no idea about Myanmar save for a bad movie with Bridget Fonda. This is not like filming a show in Japan or China or even Vietnam.
Bourdain does not shy away from the bad parts of Myanmar’s history. Almost everyone he speaks with who is local mentions the time they have spent in jail for various offenses. Heck, one guy even details how the kangaroo court handed down his sentence in an almost arbitrary way. Off you go to six years’ worth of prison! As he says, when referencing the fact that government still restricts tourist travel, there is bad shit going down that the government does not want you to see.
It’s about more than exposing the authoritarian regime’s Orwellian nature. It’s about showing the essential human qualities that exist regardless of geography.
Food and drink are humanity’s gateway into acceptance. Share a meal or a drink with someone and the chances are that you will be more considerate of that person. What Bourdain is doing in these shows, through the lens of food and drink, is showing you just how alike we all may be no matter how weird or bad the exterior conditions are locally. I may be as different as someone from Myanmar, but hell if I don’t want to spend a night eating street food, drinking cold beers, and hanging out with an indie band.
It looks like next time he is going to spend the episode with the mad genius that is Ray Choi in Los Angeles. Uh oh!