“New Season of CNN’s Popular Weekend Lifestyle Series to Feature Tours of Spain, New Mexico, Israel, Copenhagen, Sicily, Detroit, Tokyo, and India”
-CNN Press Release (5/1/2013)
Anthony Bourdain is going to Israel and that is a really good thing.
Last year, Bourdain, the former chef, bestselling author, and acerbic television host cut ties with the Travel Channel. First, an intrusive executive tried to insert some particularly obnoxious product placement into the usual eclectic globetrotting. Then, Scripps Networks acquired the Travel Channel in March 2012. Scripps Networks also owns Food Network, a subject of Bourdain’s public derision. These two incidents exacerbated his issues with the network, which had presumably been festering throughout the nine seasons of “No Reservations”. So, what is an aging, mellowing, television personality to do when the bad guy becomes the boss? Bourdain took his spartan production team’s talents to CNN where former NBC head Jeff Zucker was trying to re-brand the “worldwide leader in news” as a youth friendly entertainment network.
“Parts Unknown”, a feebly re-skinned “No Reservations”, premiered this spring to critical acclaim and a healthy ratings bump. During the final season of “No Reservations”, the New York Times reported that viewership had dropped to fewer than 500,000 per episode. CNN was happy to publish that “Parts Unknown” is being enjoyed by almost 900,000 weekly viewers in the key 18-54 age demographic. The move to CNN satisfies everyone but the Travel Channel. Viewers have more access because CNN broadcasts to more homes. CNN gets an anchor for a youth friendly weekend line-up of lifestyle programming (although they really shouldn’t phrase it like that. Right, fellow youth?). And best of all, Tony gets more freedom.
One of Bourdain’s biggest problems with the Travel Channel was their unwillingness to fund productions in potentially controversial locales. In 2006, “No Reservations” was scheduled to go to Beirut for a show about Lebanese cuisine and nightlife. What ended up airing was a one hour documentary account of an American television crew’s experience in a city under siege. By coincidence, Bourdain’s scheduled trip happened to coincide with the 34 day conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. The war was a tragedy. Innocent people were killed and fear reigned supreme.
But it made for fascinating television. We observed as an anonymous CIA agent escorted the “No Reservations” crew from their locked down five star hotel to an escape ship and (we) were moved by Bourdain’s heartfelt recollection of his harrowing experience. It was exactly the sort of dramatic, emotional, accessible entertainment that has the potential to change hearts and minds.
The Beirut episode was a critical darling, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Programming in 2007, but an insurance nightmare. That was exactly the type of expensive, controversial programming that the Travel Channel was trying to avoid. Executives consistently harangued Bourdain to do product placement and tried to corral his itinerary within the continental United States (see: Travel Channel cash cow and bizarre cash cow). Those restrictions are lifted now. Anthony Bourdain is free to become the Anderson Cooper of street meats. When a fisherman on the coast of Africa is being pressured to give up his prized seviche recipe to Somali pirates, Tony will be there!
This brings us back to Israel. The Travel Channel obviously had reservations about sending the “No Reservations” crew to the only democracy in the Middle East. I won’t speculate on their motives, but it is a glaring omission. CNN has no such qualms. According to an announcement last week, Israel is one of the destinations plotted for the second season of “Parts Unknown”, which will premiere September 15. That episode will probably film at some point this spring. Interested readers will know where to look for updates on that.
This trip has been a long time coming. In certain communities, it has been anticipated as hotly as President Obama’s trip to the region a few weeks ago. Oddly enough, there was a brief time in 2011 when a small community of ultra-Zionist Americans tried to pressure Bourdain into doing a show in Israel. This was no mass swelling of the populace, but Tablet Magazine published a write up on the Facebook Group leading the charge. Their 236 members encouraged Bourdain to travel to the land of milk and honey so he could sample the high brow gustatory pleasures of Tel Aviv and the famed Jerusalem street food.
But, we all know that Tony’s will be no curated Birthright-style propaganda-filled jaunt. That is why this is a news item worth celebrating. His critical eye lent us an insightful vision into the 2006 war in Lebanon and it can do the same for the occupation. Of course it’s possible an episode of “Parts Unknown” in Israel devolves into an inter-ethnic lovefest. It’s a risk worth taking. Personally, I find it hard to believe that this military occupation which poisons every aspect of Israeli society with its institutionalized racism and discrimination will be ignored by one of America’s most ruthless takedown artists. In his first hours on the ground, he will be witness to evidence aplenty. If any “Parts Unknown” crewmembers are of Arab descent they will no doubt be selected for a special security screening. Until a recent court decision had to overturn it, Ben Gurion Airport had a rule that would have insured Bourdain to be driven to Tel Aviv by a Jewish Israeli taxi driver. This is to say nothing of the Kafkaesque ubiquity that is teens holding machine guns.
If the Israeli government is in anyway involved in the show there will be inevitable calls for Tony to boycott Israel and cancel his trip. I understand the sentiment and in most cases I agree. Not this one though. This is an opportunity. Resistance to the occupation needs a voice in American that isn’t a reform Jewish progressive or a vaunted Palestinian intellectual. It needs a youth-friendly, demographic grabber. It needs a punk rock sensibility. It needs the man who has made it his job to be “uninterrupted projection of cool”.
It seems like everyone and their mother had suggestions for Obama’s itinerary last month. Sound off in the comments about where you want Tony to go. My proposal: Let Laila el-Haddad take him to Gaza to meet the guys who opened a kunefa shop when they got out of Israeli prison in the Shalit deal.
A version of this post appeared on Mondoweiss (5/16/2013). You can find it here.