The Trouble With Travel TV

Without Anthony Bourdain, the genre has lost its grip on reality

There’s a roux that goes into making a travel show, and most of the time, networks, streaming services, and especially the hosts screw up. Like not stirring correctly, resulting in burning the concoction, most travel television is bad – really bad. The Travel Channel doesn’t even do travel shows anymore, instead settling on dudes in Affliction shirts who chase ghosts and provide little to no evidence outside of random bangs on garbage cans. Samantha Brown no longer traverses the jungles of Thailand for Midwestern moms to get a sense of adventure; we get more and more shows about things that go bump in the night. TLC and the Discovery Channel exclusively show stuff about odd jobs on the ocean or very small people married to very big people, and that’s it. Seriously, look at Travel Channel’s site, it’s nothing but paranormal news and show listings for programming about vampires and Bigfoot.

There was a time when a sense of adventure permeated the television landscape, that people could learn things and see the world.  Andrew Zimmern chowed down on warthog assholes off in some far-off destination. Lisa Ling is still out there grinding, but her content is less a travelog but a program about people doing their best in challenging situations. Rick Steves remains the King of Public Broadcasting, offering his no-nonsense and wholesome view of Europe. And, sadly, Anthony Bourdain is still taking the dirt nap.

The suits stopped focusing on people with a genuine interest in seeing the world, whether on a shoestring budget or through some wacky concept, and instead gave the reins over to actors, people with millions in the bank that can go anywhere, at any time. How will Zac Efron sell anyone on the idea that he’s experiencing something new when he’s a movie star who can do anything he wants? The guy can dial up a threesome in a five-star suite with an Instagram post. This isn’t about the maw of Kim Kardashian and sisters, but instead that multiple people in boardrooms cannibalized a concept.

Most of the new travel shows are hollow, soulless endeavors carved out for slick, undercover advertising, or they’re a vehicle to humanize superstars to make people go, “Gee, they’re just like us!” And most of the time, the concept fails. I’m gonna take the gamble that the person who watches Rick Steves is not the person who freaks out over The Real Housewives of Whatever Dumb Fucking City.

There was a time when going to Singapore was culturally critical, that most people had never seen the beaches of Bali, and travel television gave us a chance to be entertained, educated, and inspired to get a passport. In the late 90s and early 00s, there was a glut of people getting on a plane to try garlic crab for the first time, devouring a plate of noodles at a café in Italy, and believing them because of their genuine experience. That concept died with Bourdain.

Rhodes Scholar Megan Fox had Legends of the Lost, which was about searching if the Trojan Horse story happened or if there were female Amazonian warriors. The show lasted for four episodes. Guess being publicly gross with MGK isn’t enough. David Attenborough sticks to animals, but let’s be honest, he’s a living legend, and I’d listen to him narrate my execution. I didn’t make it through an episode of Stanley Tucci in Italy. That show was such a personal jack-off fest of self-love; it felt like you walked into a room with the host doing something not meant for sharing. (Asciugamano is how you say towel in Italian.)

Look at what travel TV leaves us with:

Somebody Feed Phil

I get it. You like him because he’s a lovable dope. But really, the show is one big cringe. It’s just so corny. I’m positive Phil is a nice guy, but watching him guffaw over an Everything bagel with lox like a seven-year-old gets really old and fast. I want to like the show, but Phil can you just say something sucks once? Can Phil go somewhere he hates? Can he have a bad meal? Not everywhere is fantastic; sometimes, food is fuel to get you through the day. I’d like to see Phil talk about how mediocre an experience is, just once. Maybe then I’ll convert.

Gordon Ramsay anything

Gordon Ramsay is an absolute beast in the kitchen. This is confirmed. And I love watching him shit on people on social media for fucking up his recipes. That’s fun, but the other concepts involving him are less than stellar. Uncharted was such a blatant attempt at trying to be Bourdain it made me want to tuck and roll out of my living room. Ramsay isn’t that guy. Yelling at someone in some version of his “Hell” franchise is fine, but who’s buying him investigating cocaine? Stick to that killer Beef Wellington, my guy.

One of the problems was stealing the concept from Bourdain that the cuisine matters more than the place. Food does matter, food is political, and it’s the glue that keeps society together, but we’ve landed on an entire model that only focuses on food. He doesn’t tell the stories of the people with compassion, but instead sums them up with a quick narration, like a pat on the head, saying, “We’re glad you like these tacos; it’s our life’s dream to make a living here. But back to this wacky host!” 

Eugene Levy’s The Reluctant Traveler

In the opposite of Phil, we’ve got Eugene Levy, a legendary comic genius, on his show The Reluctant Traveler, and again, I want to dive through my car window, shards, and all into the grass where I can die. The show pushes Levy out of his comfort zone, sure, but it’s just so unrelatable; he’s an improv master, and instead of getting something genuine, he laces every moment with a one-liner, and that constant zippiness rips the honesty out of the moment. It’s an obvious grab to take someone familiar and capitalize on their built-in market.

These people have been the center of attention; it’s a grab of shtick. Travel should blast us with Bushian “shock and awe” that we should be helpless at the altar of the unknown, even if we’ve read the books and checked out the Google Reviews. Applying this concept to celebrities feels false and cheap.

Nomad with Carlton McCoy feels semi-authentic, given it’s about his personal identity experience, even though it’s through the eyes of a guy who opens wineries, something most of us aren’t even close to attaining. W Kamau Bell serves as a voice for the unheard and does so with style after a long run of well-planned concepts about the dilemmas of working-class Americans on his show United Shades of America. (Side Note: I was on the Austin episode for about 4.5 seconds.)

When someone has dined in one too many luxury hotels, they tend to lose their grip on what the real world is like, that a lot of us watching these shows do so to escape what we’re living, that our trip to Dublin is a life’s goal fulfilled when most of us can barely afford rent in this dystopian hellscape. Bring back the era of education instead of people hamming it up for the camera.

We’re without a host who isn’t a cartoon character because, in reality, we could use a guiding light of bonding of people instead of waiting for someone to make a joke or comment about how the room service is–most of us are excited about getting on the elevator for a continental breakfast, complete with the powdery eggs and burnt coffee made by the desk clerk after chugging a Monster at 6 AM. Relatability is how we bond, even if it’s through a gas station energy drink. I wonder if they have Monster in Shanghai?

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Robert Dean

Robert Dean is a journalist, raconteur, and enlightened dumbass. His work has been featured in places like Mic, Eater, Fatherly, Yahoo, Austin American-Statesman, Consequence of Sound, Ozy, The Austin Chronicle, USA Today, to name a few. He's appeared on CNN and NPR. He also serves as features writer for Hussy Magazine, Culture Clash, and Pepper Magazine. He's Editor in Chief at Big Laugh Comedy, Texas' premier comedy production company. He lives in Austin and loves ice cream and koalas. His new essay collection, Existential Thirst Trap drops in May.

One thought on “The Trouble With Travel TV

  • June 1, 2023 at 12:10 pm

    Samantha Brown won two Emmys for her travel series on PBS. 62 episodes have been aired since she left Travel Channel 8 years ago, with 10 premiering this year…


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