Television by and large fails to live up to its promise and its responsibilities. That isn’t to say that much of what constitutes this failure isn’t wonderful or worth talking about. But as an invention to bring the far world near, to build bridges, to bring to the struggling classes culture that otherwise would only be available to the comfortable, it has often settled for quick thrills, cheap effects, unearned enthusiasm.
That was never true of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” one of the medium’s best and most valuable series, whose 11th season (since its premiere in 2013) began last month on CNN. The culmination of the late host’s TV work — following “A Cook’s Tour,” “The Layover” and “No Reservations,” whose nine seasons on Travel Channel constitute a kind of less exquisitely realized version of “Parts Unknown” — it is not a travel show, really, or a food show, but an encyclopedia of human variety, ingenuity, adaptation, survival and aspiration.
“Parts Unknown” lives at the point where tradition resists or accommodates change, the difficult crossroads where the old world meets the future; it is a history lesson and a news bulletin. It acknowledges the ill with the good but lives in hope — sometimes unspoken, often stated — that better things are ahead and that they will be delicious. It is an anti-nationalist project steeped in local pride: All localities, it suggests, are worth knowing, and every culture, worth respect. (Nowhere is this attitude more in evidence than the 2016 episode in which Bourdain sat down with President Barack Obama in an ordinary Hanoi noodle shop.)
Where most travel-based shows have a touristic bent, Bourdain’s, which ranged from Korea to Koreatown, Iran to Antarctica, Chicago to Shanghai to Boreno to Senegal, were never about where you, as a viewer, as a consumer, could go — he often went places you couldn’t — and what to do when you got there. Their message is that true luxury is in the learning and the company, in being human among humans and earthy upon the Earth. And while ”Parts” looked with passing interest on the fancy works of mankind, it repeatedly came back to the land — including the sea — and how it shapes those who live on it, and off of it.
Every so often, the show would turn its focus on Bourdain himself, following him into a martial arts class or a tattoo parlor or through a night of drinking — he was a recovered drug addict but no teetotaler — or into some double-act adventure with his good friend the French chef Eric Ripert, who had been filming with him in France before Bourdain apparently took his life Friday. These episodes could feel like distractions from the series’ main business, but one sees now that they were part of the larger story he was writing there, that of a troubled evolving consciousness, a person in the world struggling to see the world and his place in it.
CNN will mark Bourdain’s passing with “Remembering Anthony Bourdain” airing Friday at 7 p.m. PT, repeating Sunday at 7 p.m.; a collection of Bourdain’s favorite episodes Saturday beginning at 5 p.m. PT, and the next scheduled episode of “Parts Unknown,” focusing on Berlin, with an introduction by Anderson Cooper. There is nothing television can offer that is more worth your while.
If you or a loved one is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd