A visibly nervous Eugene Levy is the best part of TV’s latest travel show
Eugene Levy is the star of “The Reluctant Traveler” (Apple TV+, beginning Friday), a sweet stunt travel show that mixes touristic interest with incidental comedy and late-life personal growth. I imagine this all began with some producer’s notion that it would be amusing to have the guy who ran the down-market Rosebud Motel in “Schitt’s Creek” host a show about remarkable, better-than-first-class luxury hotels around the world. But, reportedly, the series as it emerged was shaped by Levy’s genuine disinclination toward adventure and new experiences — his comfort zone is seemingly the size of a walk-in closet — and the series finds things for him to do he would ordinarily avoid.
The show combines travel-series tropes with prearranged scenarios in which Levy is dropped into challenging situations — which, for the most part, after some hemming and hawing, he submits to, whether it’s walking across a suspension bridge (he fears heights) or eating sushi (he never has) in a Tokyo “art” restaurant, or simply heading out into an unfamiliar city.
A fit 75 at the time of filming (though he will point out more than once that he’s “old”), Levy finds himself driving a dog sled, piloting a sailboat, riding a horse, planting a coffee tree, screwing a hole in the ice to fish, feeding reindeer or sheep. (“The sheep ran as soon as they saw me. Did they see a movie they didn’t particularly care for?”) In a different sort of challenge, he’s sent for a session of “forest therapy” — he’s never had or wanted any sort of therapy, preferring to keep the private private — where, advised to reveal something he has never told a soul, he confesses to the Costa Rican rainforest that he once lost $800 in a poker game.
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Food evidently means a lot to him — at the counter of an Italian osteria, he actually bounces on his feet in anticipation — but his tastes are simple. (“If it’s too Michelin for me it’s sometimes tough to find something you really want to eat.”) Filling out a pre-arrival questionnaire for a resort in the Maldives that promises to fulfill any request — acquiring a pat of butter from a specific region of France is given to him as an example — he lists his dream meal as a cheeseburger, fries and shake.
The hotels are indeed unusual — in South Africa, it’s a string of converted railroad cars parked across a bridge, in Venice it’s a former palace — but they are also castles in the air, beyond the reach of most ordinarily employed humans. (Some make the White Lotus look like … well, the Rosebud Motel.) Fortunately, the series doesn’t spend all that much time indoors, as much as Levy is at times tempted to; ordinarily, he says, on the first morning in his Venetian palace, he would stay in for hours, “having a coffee — or two.” But the terms of the agreement send him outside to “get lost,” though really only until he’s delivered into the hands of his next friendly guide. And, of course, there’s always a film crew at his shoulder.
To his moral credit, Levy often seems as ill at ease with luxury as with the prospect of a night walk through the rainforest or getting into a helicopter. “I can understand eating 24 carrots, but eating gold is a whole other thing,” he says, presented with a dessert trimmed with gold leaf. This pays off, more comfortably, when he visits the family workshop where the gold leaf is hammered by hand and is enlisted to assist.
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Although the vicarious tourism is part of the appeal — the show looks good and gives an excellent sense of its diverse settings, from Lapland to Lisbon to the Utah desert — it’s best when Levy is most visibly nervous (which is also when he’s at his funniest) or emotionally moved or connecting with locals, the people who call him “Eugene” as opposed to “Mr. Levy” and who laugh at his jokes rather than staring quizzically.
Levy is an interested interviewer, happiest when conversation or circumstances lead to talk of family, theirs or his — wife Deb and children (and “Schitt’s” co-stars) Dan and Sarah Levy. He relates on a personal level to a gondolier whose son will eventually take over his business. In Costa Rica he “crashes” the 85th birthday of a carpenter, where, to his surprise, he discovers “American Pie” fans; in Utah, which has a significant emotional effect on him (it’s his first time in the desert), he spends time with the family of his Navajo guide.
I’ve had several journalistic occasions to spend time with Levy, and though you can’t always tell about people whose job is in part to be nice to journalists, the man onscreen here seems very much the person I’ve met in person. Self-mocking, funny, modest in that Canadian way — “I hope by allowing me to stay here you’re not lowering the bar,” he tells the manager of his Venetian hotel, as he’s shown a special guest book filled with famous signatures — and excellent company.
‘The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy’
Where: Apple TV+
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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