Anthony Bourdain has travelled to all sorts of exotic places over the past couple of years, with none as important as where he’s taken CNN itself.
Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series, a culinary travelogue, swiftly became the network’s top-rated series since debuting last April, a bright spot at a place that was in a severe dry spell before the missing Malaysian plane kicked up ratings. A new eight-episode season begins on Sunday in the US.
Bourdain explains his team’s strategy with typical coarseness: “We are constantly asking ourselves, first and foremost, what is the most [messed] up thing we can do next week?”
The season opener, from Punjab, India, illustrates what makes Parts Unknown unique. Bourdain tells stories about the tense border between India and Pakistan and a Sikh gathering place where a free meal is served to tens of thousands of people each day. He rides a rickety train to a Himalayan village that was a summer getaway for the ruling class, and visits a luxury home nearly frozen in time.
In between, he eats. At roadside stands or wealthy parlours. Bourdain normally sneers at vegetarian fare, but the spices and bread in Punjab enthrall him.
Car horns and street sounds are cleverly spliced into a musical soundtrack. Music is an integral part of the show, driving the story in subtle ways. Bourdain is a big music fan with some punk rock tastes.
His larger-than-life persona pulls each episode together. Bourdain takes viewers on an adventure instead of a trip.
“He brings you to places that CNN covers in the course of a day, but he takes you through a different doorway,” said Amy Entelis, CNN senior vice president for talent and content development.
For the second Parts Unknown this season, Bourdain goes to Las Vegas, where he talks to casino workers, eats Japanese food with Penn Gillette and explains how electronic dance music is big business in the city the way Wayne Newton was generations ago. Mexico City, the Mississippi Delta, Thailand, Russia and Brazil are also on the itinerary the next two months.
The contrast between the first two episodes is vintage Bourdain.
“To me, a perfect sequence would be, you’d see one episode and like it and you turn it on the next week in the same time period and are just utterly confused and not even sure that you’re watching the same show,” he said.
Last year’s trip to Japan was an eye-opener, when Bourdain attended a bizarre show with robots and scantily clad women, visited with a death metal band and dined with a woman involved in the city’s sadomasochistic community.
CNN’s willingness to go along for the ride earned the network his loyalty.
“They’ve been enormously supportive, completely supportive from the second we arrived,” he said. “They knew what they were getting. They said they wanted to help in any way possible and that’s exactly what they’ve done. We’ve handed them some very difficult material. They may have blinked a couple of times but in the end, they have always moved forward.”
In a crowded television world, a strong character with a unique point of view is often what’s needed to break through. Besides the ratings, Entelis measures the success of Parts Unknown by the number of pitches she gets from people who say they want to be the Anthony Bourdain of their own series.
Parts Unknown averages more than 800,000 viewers an episode, affirming and accelerating a trend at CNN toward non-fiction series separate from ongoing news coverage. Two current examples include Chicagoland, a look at politics and life in that city with Robert Redford as executive producer, and Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man, where he takes a close look at facets of American life.
Bourdain is reluctant to analyse why his series has succeeded.
“If you think about who the audience is and what their expectations might be, I think that’s the road to badness and mediocrity,” he said. “You go out there and show the best story you can as best you can. If it’s interesting to you, hopefully it’s interesting to others. If you don’t make television like that, it’s pandering.”