Critic’s Pick: ‘United Shades of America,’ ‘Parts Unknown,’ ‘My Nazi Legacy’

A burning cross, ignited by members of the Ku Klux Klan, is reflected in the spectacles of W. Kamau Bell, host of the new CNN series "United Shades of America."

A burning cross, ignited by members of the Ku Klux Klan, is reflected in the spectacles of W. Kamau Bell, host of the new CNN series “United Shades of America.”


“Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” (CNN, Sundays); “United Shades of America” (CNN, Sundays). Bourdain’s show, whose seventh season began last Sunday, is both the best of all Bourdain series (following “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and “The Layover”) and perhaps the best travel series on television. (I say perhaps because I have not seen them all — there are so many, so very many — but at any rate I’ve seen none better.) Possibly one of the best things on television, period, for its global reach, eye for detail, well-communicated sense of place, delight in difference, interest in people and love of food; at a time when a substantial number of Americans are getting excited about building a wall to keep the world at bay, I find its embrace of otherness — or rather, other people’s ordinary lives — tonic and moving. It’s a reminder, too, that even in hard places, that life can be full of color and joy. It’s true that Bourdain can sometimes get in the way of the shot. The best episodes are the ones where his own adventure remains secondary to the life of his subjects. But these are occasional hiccups, not chronic flaws. This week: Chicago — America, too, is full of otherness. It’s what makes it America.

Which brings us to “United Shades of America.” Scheduled companionably next to “Parts Unknown” and hosted by the comedian W. Kamau Bell, formerly host of the FXX current events series “Totally Biased,” it’s a travel show of sorts — a kind of participatory comedy pitched as “a show where a black guy goes places either he shouldn’t go or you wouldn’t expect him to go.” The production values are more modest than Bourdain’s, with Bell’s personal journey and learning curve a little more to the point. A big guy with a big laugh, he’s softer around the edges than Bourdain, with nothing of his swagger, but as curious and nervy a reporter and in one way or another a foreign presence wherever he goes, whether it’s to San Quentin, the Ku Klux Klan South or East L.A. (“Are you here to gentrify my neighborhood, man?” he’s asked on the streets of Boyle Heights. “If you’re a hipster I can’t talk to you.”)

The point of the show is that nothing you haven’t seen first-hand will be quite what you expect it to be; even the Klansmen he meets, though disturbing in their Caucasian self-regard, are not exactly predictable. (One member on cross-burning, or “lighting,” as he insists: “You wouldn’t want to do them every month, it makes it less special; it’s like the idea you could have Champagne but you’re not going to have it ever day. One of the nicest times to do it is during a full moon, or during the winter when the stars twinkle.”) Bell frames the darker stuff with jokes. He’s a comedian, intrinsically. But the series is serious at heart. Along with art and music and quinceañeras, the East L.A. episode delves into issues of immigration and assimilation, (“When my people came we didn’t have our papers either, and they seemed to be perfectly fine with letting us in. I mean, we had bills of shipping, I don’t know if that counts?”) At the end of the prison episode, which has a lot to do with recidivism and rehabilitation, he observes, “Most of the guys I met here aren’t getting out; and if you feel good about that you need to rewind this show and watch it again.” And leaving a Klan meeting in small-town Arkansas, he notes, “Unlike most of the black people in this country who have been present for a cross burning, I get to leave.”

Horst von Wächter, left, Phillipe Sands and Niklas Frank explore their intersecting family history in the documentary film "My Nazi Legacy."

Horst von Wächter, left, Phillipe Sands and Niklas Frank explore their intersecting family history in the documentary film “My Nazi Legacy.”

(Kerry Brown)

“My Nazi Legacy” (PBS, Monday). Presented as part of the invaluable documentary series “Independent Lens,” David Evans’ film, written and narrated by international human rights lawyer and author Philippe Sands, follows Sands as he talks and travels with Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter -- two friends whose fathers were, at different levels of authority, responsible for the death of Sands’ Jewish family among thousands of others in the now-Ukrainian city of Lviv during World II. (At the Nuremberg trails, Frank’s father, Hans Frank, who had been Hitler’s own lawyer, was held responsible for the death of 4 million individuals, Jews and Poles, and later executed. Otto von Wächter, Horst’s father, was the Nazi-installed governor of the Krakow and Galicia districts, the latter of which included Lviv.) It’s a journey in which Sands’ interrogating presence puts new stresses on the Germans’ relationship, already defined by polar approaches to their shared inheritance. Where Frank assiduously proclaims his father’s guilt, and carries a post-execution portrait just to remind him that he’s dead, von Wächter grasps at straws to absolve his own, taking a long view of history that, though not philosophically indefensible, involves large measure of psychological self-protection. The territory has been gone over in countless films before this, and should be familiar to anyone with a modicum of historical awareness, but Evans’ and Sands’ film feels fresh for its being so intimate — it’s a film about family and memory, first and foremost — and for the way its principals’ shared history is artfully and awfully uncovered.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd