In My Head by Queens of the Stone Age. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is the best show on television. It’s not the funniest (Modern Family), not the most relateable (How I Met Your Mother), not the most informative (Frontline) and certainly not the fairest representations of Louisiana’s vampire sub-culture. But the best.
I struggle with television. That is, I struggle with watching anything on television and not, at the conclusion, feeling guilty that I hadn’t spent the prior 30 minutes (or two hours) doing something more productive. No Reservations is one of the only shows that doesn’t elicit that very specific and personal guilt. Travel Channel Mondays. It’s a remarkable show born of a fairly remarkable guy. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here
Bourdain is a former drug addict and grunt sous chef from New York. He’s written a few books. He’s a good (not great) writer, who benefits from firmly grasped ideas and good editing. I’ve read two of his books. The first Kitchen Confidential, which propelled him to the great heights of both living an enviable life and having a cable network pay him to do it, is an honest assessment of the New York culinary underbelly and his own drug use. It was a big time NYT best-seller and a good read. Pick it up. The other, Medium Raw, is his reflection back from his early days to his stardom with an ever mindful eye not to sound like the celebrity “foodies” he loathes. It’s appropriately self-deprecating and offers some insightful thoughts on the American food scene. As a laughingly amateur foodie by myself, I found it interesting. Bourdain and I have some similar beliefs/views. The ridiculousness of vegetarianism, a love of street food (N.B. Downtown OKC, can we get a fucking hot-dog cart, please? While I could, I shouldn’t eat tacos every day. Hot-dogs seem like a reasonable substitute..maybe a gyro cart hmmmm) love of the Ramones, a one-time fondness for intravenous opiates and a hatred of Chili’s.
But all of this above aren’t the reasons for writing about him. His brilliant hour long quasi-documentary television program is. The premise is simple enough. He travels to places all over the globe, remote (but exotic sounding) locations, typical tourist destinations and some other fairly random stops (e.g. Mexican border towns, the tiny island of Macau) all accompanied with eating deep-rooted local dishes and observing unique local culture, narrated by his great voice-over inner monologue which is assholey yet faithful enough that I believe it.
Programs with the premise of No Reservation typically have one of two M.O.s. Either a host in awe of a new culture, the worldly traveler reverent toward the odd mores and unique beauty of Indonesia or Iceland, fully accepting of all they experience as some sort of enlightened relativist. Or a host stuck out like a sore thumb, zinc-oxided jam shorted American (N.B. or its obverse (and what you might expect from A.B.) the sunglassed smoking skeptically laconic New Yorker). Neither of these serve any purpose other than to give the viewer some sort of touchstone a “well, that’s how I would be if I was there too.” Both of these M.O.s (the limp implant or the unapologetic American) are tiring and (my theory) are typically why these shows are so fucking brutal.
The brilliance of No Reservations is that Bourdain has found a middle ground. He doesn’t play the role of stubborn American repelling other cultures, but he also troubles himself little with cultural imersion in the sense of hoping to truly understand any of it. Bourdain struggles with his own Americanness and it’s the highlight of the show. I say “struggle” not that he’s ashamed of it. He’s simply very aware of it. What he’s interested in and what he often (not always) describes is his response to these different cultures, people, places refracted through his unrepentant Americanism or more specifically, (esp. when doing a domestic show) his New Yorkerism. He drops down in these places neither as a well-versed trained implant nor as a buffoonish “no hablo” but as a guy not scared just trying to figure it out, have a good meal, have some drinks and maybe a smoke.
And he goes everywhere and does everything both gaudy and humble. This vacillation is crucial. Every time you can feel him (and I beleive he can feel himself) stray into the $1,000 meals in foreign lands that most of us will never sniff, he fires right back with an episode like this past Monday hitting roadhouses, hippie domes and flea market junk sales in the Palm Dessert (with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age FWIW). And he gives you the sweat-stained, beef-eating, slice of hard America. He passes judgment over none of it, but has an opinion over all of it. That’s a delicate balancing act. Bourdain executes this with such a dry yet awkward precision (counter-intuitive, I know) that my own response to it is unashamed jealousy.
And yes, there are shit loads of food. I enjoy the food (as once proud devotee of the Food Network back when it had actual chefs on it and not Guy Fieri and Extreme Turbo Laser Cakes) and yes I enjoy learning about the remote (and almost always surprising) locales he takes us. But Bourdain himself is my favorite part. His wit, his observations, his analysis. So here’s my rec, watch the show, learn something from the way he experiences anything different from what he knows. It’s a trip. Enjoy.
Post Script: I’m out next week, vacation. Other than in-utereo-Mexico, this will be little man’s first trip out of the state. Escaping heat dome and going to Colorado “with an achin’….in my heart.” Humor me. Find your own WD and recommend it to me. MD, hit me with some Wu-Tang.