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Column: Stanley Tucci is magical. Why does his Italy travel show leave me so enraged?

Stanley Tucci and wife Felicity Blunt in "Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy" on CNN.
(CNN)

Here’s how I know life is getting at least a tiny bit better: My husband has dumped Rachel Maddow for Stanley Tucci.

As with many things — smartphones, soccer pants, purchasing anything online — Richard came to Rachel Maddow late, then developed a devotion bordering on obsession. “Do you ever watch Rachel Maddow?” he asked mere days into the Trump presidency, just as if I were not a member of the news media, or a person alive on this planet. Not that I needed to watch her, at least not from that moment on, as my husband began giving me a daily report of her take on every situation. Especially during the past year, when his cancer treatments and the shutdown conspired to keep Richard on our living room couch for large portions of the day, where, like many liberals, he immersed himself in MSNBC in general and Rachel Maddow in particular.

When the host went into quarantine, he fretted about her health and that of her partner, Susan Mikula; when Rachel emotionally described Mikula’s near-fatal case of COVID-19, Richard choked up right along with her.

So you can imagine my surprise one evening when I wandered into the living room to find my husband watching (gasp) CNN.

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“Have you heard of ‘Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy'?” he asked, just as if my colleague Yvonne Villarreal had not recently written a big piece on Tucci, which I had read the moment it was published with envious absorption.

Being an avid fan of both Tucci and Italy, I sat down beside my husband, and for the first time in months, watched a half-hour of linear television that did not involve horrible news or the recent transfer of presidential power.

Fittingly, the veteran actor and foodie went viral last spring for mixing a drink: “I have experienced my life, in a lot of ways, through my mouth,” he says.

Richard was enthralled; I was … well, I was many things. I have always loved any show that takes me to beautiful places I long to visit, particularly during the pandemic when my personal definition of “trip” was inevitably coupled with “to the grocery store.” And here was one of my favorite actors striding along the streets of Rome (and later Naples, Bologna, Parma and other Italian destinations), looking smart and sophisticated in a cunning scarf and black jacket when it was chilly and linen pants, a linen sports coat and, on at least one shocking occasion, a blindingly white button-down shirt when it was not.

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I was all in on the cunning scarf but honestly, who wears a blindingly white button-down for a show that involves eating a bunch of pizza or pasta? Stanley Tucci, apparently. I could only imagine the assistant standing just off camera, arms weighted down with replacement shirts should Tucci‘s become flecked with Neapolitan tomato remains. Right beside whoever was holding the portable steamer necessary to keep all that linen looking so fresh.

I realize I’m being petty and no doubt inaccurate — if anyone can manage to wander in and out of Italian restaurants while keeping all his linen garments wrinkle-free, it is Stanley Tucci, because he is magical.

Still, it was sometimes hard to hear whatever he was saying as he ate amazing food in amazing places; trapped in Los Angeles County’s perpetual purple tier, I was too busy stifling my sobs as I wondered if non-magical Americans like myself would ever be able to go to Italy again.

Not that Tucci eats very much during the course of “Searching for Italy.” He eats often but never very much — a bite of this, a nibble of that, just enough to trigger paroxysms of bliss in his fine familiar face without adding an ounce to his trim figure.

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Honestly, it is maddening. “If you’re going to eat, then eat, Stanley Tucci,” I wanted to scream. “And if you’re not, then get out of that kitchen and walk around Parma some more because I have been stuck in my house for more than a year! I don’t need to learn how organ meat can be turned into some delectable dish because there is no way in hell I am ever going to eat organ meat. I need to wander, with you and your camera crew, through some of the most beautiful streets in the world!”

Which are amazingly open and often bustling. As is made clear episode by episode, some of the show was shot before the pandemic, and some during the summer of 2020 when Italy briefly came out of shutdown.

Even without the explainers you can guess the timeline by the face masks, which are completely absent in some episodes and randomly present in others, often illustrating the universal truth that a man possessing a face mask is in want of a woman to tell him it needs to go over his nose and his mouth. (It need not be said that when Tucci wears a face mask, he wears it impeccably, though how he manages to keep his glasses from steaming up is just more evidence that he is magical.)

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As you can imagine, I was not a silent viewer of “Searching for Italy” and during the first episode, my husband pointedly informed me that he was recording it, so I could watch it at a later time if I wished. Which I did, vacillating between admiration, longing and envious outrage with each episode.

I realize that my reaction is deeply, to the point of neurotically, personal. “Searching for Italy” is, Tucci states repeatedly, a show in which he attempts to explore Italy through its food. I have never been a big fan of food shows (except, occasionally, the ones that allow whoever is doing the eating to take a bite and say, “This is terrible,” which is something Tucci never does, either because he is honestly blown away by everything he tastes or because he is simply too lovely to complain).

The show has many admirable traits even beyond its star and the glimpses of a country I long to visit. It is far-ranging and fascinating in its historical and social revelations and features a panoply of amazing local chefs and restaurant owners, including older women whom I am always happy to see presented as figures beyond the wise-cracking grandmother stereotype. Indeed, my favorite moment of the series so far was when the older female owner of a Roman eatery snaps at a young assistant who is deep-frying an artichoke, in Italian, “don’t let it burn!” — thereby giving me an Italian phrase I can actually use.

Still, my gratitude for “Searching for Italy” and all the series that have provided us with faraway vistas during the pandemic is slowly being, well, eaten away by irritated envy. I too would like to be rambling the streets and exploring the hills of the Italian countryside (though I cannot imagine participating in the luring, killing and consuming of an adorable bunny, as Tucci did in one episode — and yes, as an unapologetic meat eater, I realize this is the height of hypocrisy).

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It would be unfair to hoist the full burden of my many pandemic frustrations onto Tucci’s shoulders, tailored-to-swooning-point though they may be. In fact, I felt a similar mix of rage and rapture watching “Men in Kilts,” the recent attempt by Starz to extend the “Outlander” brand by sending that show’s stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish on a road trip through Scotland.

Scotland! I want to go to Scotland! It is even higher on my wish list than Italy (only because I have been to Italy but never Scotland).

The first episode of “Men in Kilts” sees Heughan and McTavish exploring their native land by way of, you guessed it, food. Indeed, the sight of them settling in over fancy-ass plates of lobster and scallops while an Edinburgh chef extols the wonders of the Scottish “larder” sent me scrambling for the fast-forward button and searching my soul — am I the only person in the world who does not equate travel and cultural exploration immediately with consuming expensive and elaborate food?

Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish aren’t quite ‘banging the drum’ for an independence referendum in their new show. But after Brexit, the subject is inescapable.

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The ghost of Stanley Tucci lingered not just at the dining table. Opening scenes in which Heughan and McTavish’s van carves a path through the green glories of the Scottish countryside conjured images of Tucci and Colin Firth’s trip across England’s Lake District as a fictional couple in the recent “Supernova” — I want to go to the Lake District! Perhaps on my way to Scotland! — which only goes to prove, as if more proof were needed, that Stanley Tucci is a secret center of the universe.

Fortunately, subsequent episodes were more fun, at least for me. In addition to food, Heughan and McTavish have, thus far, explored Scotland via its sports and its music; Sunday’s episode tantalizingly promises ghosts and legends. Through interviews with local experts, voice-over and in-van banter, they offer brief and compelling bits of history similar to Tucci’s excavation of Italian culture, but with the added entertainment value of watching the two engage in traditions as varied as sword dancing and stone lifting, often while wearing kilts.

“Do not go commando,” recommends Charlie Murray, vice president of the Highland Games Assn., as the pair attempt to learn hammer hurling in the second episode. “Just in case you get upended.”

This episode also involves some carefully self-edited bits of skinny-dipping in the freezing North Atlantic, which really does make you wonder if Tucci is being as creative as he might be in Italy. Watching a woman whip up a batch of cappelletti in a matter of minutes is amazing and all, but where is the skinny-dipping?

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CNN recently announced that “Searching for Italy” will get a second season, so let me be the first to suggest getting Heughan and McTavish involved. Or perhaps Tucci could see what Firth is up to; having been married to an Italian journalist and owning, at one point, a house in Umbria, the British actor might have some adventures to suggest.

With any luck, life will soon return to a version of normal in which “Searching for Italy,” “Men in Kilts” and all the shows set in faraway places that so many of us have been leaning on during the pandemic will serve less as vicarious thrill and more as travel guide. (Which is why, for all my querulous complaints, I am definitely taking note of Tucci’s favorite restaurants.)

Perhaps life will return enough to normal that MSNBC will give Maddow and Mikula a travel show too. God knows, after the year they’ve had, they could use a little fun and sun, and that’s a pair I would follow just about anywhere.


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