Archive for anthony bourdain

Channelling History

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

Doing television history on TV is a daunting task. It’s hard enough trying to convey how television connects with social and political events of the past, not to mention avoiding ending up saying TV is a ‘window on the world’ (hall-of-mirrors more like) or making it a medium of communication rather than art. And how do you talk about the history of broadcasting without it becoming a dry recital of telecommunications regulation of the kind John Oliver parodies or a series of backslapping celebrity anecdotes? This is before having to package all this into an inevitably narrow television format that’s supposed to have a broad appeal. So I’m not at all surprised that CNN’s The Sixties: Television Comes of Age was a failure but I am surprised that AMC’s Mad Men, a piece of historical fiction with only a passing interest in sixties television, managed to do so much with the idea.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

The Sixties: Television Comes a Cropper.

Recently, Jon Stewart has been using rather a lot of his daily timeslot to attack CNN with the kind of scrutiny and vigour the network never exhibits in its news coverage. He’s been forsaking more gratifying targets, such as Fox News, because CNN’s bloated, ignorant and downright incompetent news reporting is such an insult to journalism and yet still poses as a legitimate news outlet, rather than just an extended campaign ad like Fox or MSNBC. The decline in CNN’s journalistic practices seems to be inversely proportionate to the rise of their original documentary films and series. A mixed bag, to be sure, but with some real highlights, like Anthony Bourdain’s myth-busting travelogue Parts Unknown and archaeological verite Our Nixon. Consequently, I was enthused about the network doing a documentary series on America in the sixties and encouraged that the first episode would be about television. So what’s my problem?

Well, first of all, Tom Hanks. Clearly a selling point for the series if the roadside spinning-sign branding of his producer credit is anything to go by, Hanks has also enlisted himself as a talking head for the show. The actor’s irrelevance to his own industry continues into the documentary, with his inarticulate babbling at the camera about his (unprocessed) memories of watching TV as a child which even a Den-of-Geek editor would call fanboyish. I’m not exactly smitten with the talking heads format anyway. From talking to people who’ve done them, it seems that their words aren’t chosen on their own merits but as a grammatical bridge in the programme’s narration. This pretty much does for anyone who might have a critical stance, but the majority of guests worked in sixties television or now work in the industry and are unlikely to offer much in the way of perspective.

But if this were the only problem with the series, you’ll be inclined to forgive since the researchers and editors have done such a masterful and artful job of finding and fitting together footage from sixties’ television shows. After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle. I know it’s not the way things are done now but it’s a great shame that the footage wasn’t left to speak for itself, as it really tells its own story and a better one than the narration. The fundamental problem here is that it doesn’t say anything about what it would have been like to watch television in the sixties, or any other time for that matter. We know what people watched, when they watched it, and some of what it was trying to say. But did audiences get it?

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

Mad Men: Better Than a Documentary

This is where Mad Men steps in. In the recent mid-season finale, the characters are all trying to catch as much as they can of the ongoing TV coverage of the Moon Landings. Ad executive Peggy has to follow this with a client pitch the morning after men walked on the moon. Struggling for a segue, she – and writer Weiner – manage to distil the essence of the dial and bandwidth-restricted TV viewing of the time as ‘everyone doing the same thing at the same time’. If that weren’t profoundly elegant enough, Peggy goes on to talk about how this rare moment of unity (and possibly television itself) masks the social disharmony of late sixties America. This isn’t even for our benefit, but for that of fast-food executives looking to cash in on a conservative backlash. Any documentary about American TV history is going to have to beat that.

Mexican Stand-Off

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by Tom Steward

This is a post about an episode of a TV show and an open letter responding to that episode. Please watch the episode and read the letter before reading the post, as my editorialising of the episode and the letter will not be sufficient exposure to form an opinion on them and it would be unfair to base a response to the episode on what this post and the letter have to say about it.

On Sunday night, CNN aired a new episode of the travel documentary series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown about Mexico City. The following day, travel blogger W. Scott Koenig published an open letter to Anthony Bourdain about the episode on his website Though the letter is reverent towards Bourdain’s writing and journalism in general, Koenig strongly contested the portrayal of Mexico in Sunday’s episode of the chef-writer-presenter’s signature travel show, now in its third season. Koenig accused Bourdain of a disproportionate emphasis on the drug-related violence and killing that takes place in the country and overlooking the richness of the culture, history, art and gastronomy in the regions he visited on the show. Koenig also hinted strongly at potential interference from the network and the programme’s advertisers to scaremonger about visiting Mexico and lumped in the episode with inaccurate press reporting on Mexican drug violence, with comparative statistics to boot.

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

Koenig has already swathed Bourdain in the kind of praise that I would have given him, so I don’t feel the need to defend for the latter’s impeccable record in TV, journalism and prose in both non-fiction and fiction. I do, however, feel the need to intercede somewhere between apologist and critic on his behalf. Koenig is right to be disturbed, unsettled and disappointed with the Mexico City episode, but perhaps not for the reasons the blogger outlines. Firstly, I do have to point out a disparity in quality between the two works, lest you think I’m creating a false equivalency between an intricately constructed TV documentary and a hastily-written blog post. If you are going to offer a riposte to such an artfully made and powerfully written piece of television, blogger’s ellipsis and internet grammatology isn’t going to cut it. Right or wrong, this was proof-correction of artistic meditation.

My initial reaction to the Mexico City episode of Parts Unknown was that Bourdain was trying to dispel some of the comforting myths people tell themselves about countries in the grip of violence and under the yoke of organised crime. The perception that gangster rule – in this case the cartels – protects the innocent from harm because of their predominantly internal conflicts was fundamentally altered with the stories of Mexican journalists, protestors, artists and bystanders who had perished or lived in fear for their lives. Any sense that the cartels are a rogue criminal element in Mexico was immediately quashed by the episode connecting the dots between drug operations and Mexican business and government. These are important distinctions, and not to be taken or shown lightly. If I had this as a documentarian, I’d feel obliged to lead with it, even if it meant a few less restaurants onscreen.

While Koenig (or wife Ursula, whom he credits with the bald synopsis) is not wrong about a motif of ‘bodies’ in the episode, I think they may have misjudged where this darkness is coming from. Rather than a SPECTRE-like network-advertiser conspiracy to inadvertently profit from tourism, the emphasis on violence and killing was more likely motivated by Bourdain’s anger and outrage at what’s going on in his backyard. As we saw in last season’s episode of Parts Unknown in Detroit, Bourdain is at his most livid when faced with the ruin of places closest to his home and heart, in parts of the world where remedy is within reach. It is not contempt but fear for Mexico that seems to drive this episode, the unjust feeling that a place of such beauty and brilliance doesn’t have the system it deserves, but also that a good neighbour needs a good turn.

Bourdain in Baja.

Bourdain in Baja.

I don’t think the episode should have sacrificed this raw, seething depiction of social problems for local culture any more than The Wire should have gone to more Baltimore crab shacks (Koenig is loath to admit that there is a great deal of food and drink in the episode). I would take issue with Bourdain’s attitude to Mexico, however. In the Baja episode of No Reservations a couple of years ago, Bourdain wore his ignorance about Mexico on his sleeve and let the natives surprise him. Here, he seems very certain of how the country can solve its problems, and doesn’t mind telling the locals. Crucially, we don’t see what the Mexicans he meets think of his suggestions! I was taken aback by the episode, if only because Bourdain has made more upbeat programmes about worse-off places (Libya, for example). Unbalanced, maybe. Sensationalist, never. Violent? Yes, but not without motive.

Opening the Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

In the last few weeks I’ve watched more game shows than at any time in my life. Some of this is pure accident. I’ve been going to the gym at 9 the morning just as the mounted screens capture the moment that network TV is taken over by previously respected comedians taunting hysterical kleptomaniacs dressed as food. Now that I’m working out regularly I can sit through The Biggest Loser without feeling I should be doing so from inside an exercise wheel. It’s also partly about the age of television that we live in. The contestification of reality TV means that if you want to watch a cooking programme you have to endure some laborious competition while foraging for crumbs of culinary information under the table. Plus The Bachelor is back, which is the slowest game of Guess Who? ever played. Here’s some of the winners, losers and returning contestants:


Let’s Make a Deal/The Price is Right (CBS, mornings)

Wayne Brady withholds money from old white lady-you make up the caption!

Essentially the same programme from two parallel dimensions where the only difference is who people liked more on Whose Line is it Anyway?, these two shows feature audiences whose enthusiasm wouldn’t look out of place at the Nuremberg rally attempting to turn their capitalist pre-conditioning into prizes. In the former, incest love-child of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima Wayne Brady sells the public toxic assets while looking offscreen for his credibility. The latter has the master of weight-to-spectacle ratio Drew Carey rewarding conspicuous consumption. Brady’s fancily dressed studio audience appear to have been plucked from a Twilight Zone episode where it’s Halloween every day and Carey’s contestants are so elated by being selected you’d think the alternative was The Running Man.

The Winner is: Free enterprise.

The Loser is: Market regulation.

Returning Contestant?: Until the gym shows something other than Bones.


The Taste (ABC, Thursdays)

‘Ok is it an animal that flies or grazes?’

It’s quicker to replace the word ‘voice’ with ‘taste’ and apply everything you know about NBC’s The Voice than to describe this primetime cooking competition. Plagiarism aside, The Taste is closer to the spirit of the blind judging concept than its sensually conjoined twin, which has ironically produced more conventional-looking winners than the image-obsessed American Idol. The judges continue to taste blind even after selecting their teams, which often results in publicly humiliating their protégés. It also reveals the astoundingly poor palettes of those in the food industry, as they bemoan the lack of protein in desserts and consistently lose at ‘guess the animal’. The lack of prejudice in the selection process is offset by the judges’ freely expressing their sexism and dietary bigotry.

The Winner is: Whoever gets the leftovers.

The Loser is: Any vegetarian.

Returning Contestant?: For as long as Anthony Bourdain is there.


The Biggest Loser (NBC, Tuesdays)

‘Why do I have to have my shirt off again?’

One mustn’t scoff at an American game show where the prize is better health instead of more stuff. But don’t be naïve enough to think this is public service television. Underneath the noble purpose is a ‘watch fatty jiggle’ voyeurism which forces contestants to turn their bodies into freakshow curiosities before losing weight. The show is padded with needless challenges and needlessly complicated rules tenuously linked to some sort of obesity fable that only makes weight loss harder and more arbitrary. And if the thing you need to lose weight isn’t made by a sponsor, forget it. The ongoing weight loss is undoubtedly a serial hook here, and the perverse satisfaction of seeing a body waste away is what keeps you coming back.

The Winner is: Subway.

The Loser is: Whoever Subway’s competitors are.

Returning Contestant?: Either that or my TV’s screen ratio keeps changing.


The Bachelor (ABC, Mondays)

‘I need that in the form of a question’

If the holiday you won on a game show turned out to be to a leper colony or the games room you risked everything for was just Ker-Plunk in a box, you probably wouldn’t go back as a contestant. However, despite former ‘winners’ chalking up an abysmal tally of estrangements, broken engagements and divorces, people keep wanting to be and wanting to be on The Bachelor(ette). Even having been a contestant seems to be life-threatening these days. Unlike other game shows, The Bachelor(ette) likes to invite its losing contestants back to occupy more senior roles in the programme, like Juan Pablo who was sent home in a previous season and is now the bachelor. It’s like losing Final Jeopardy and then next day replacing Alex Trebek.

The Winner is: Rose-growers.

The Loser is: Divorce statistics.

Returning Contestant?: I’ve watched so much I’ll be the next bachelor.

TV Highlights

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2012 by Tom Steward

I’ve been in the US since June so here’s a round-up of my TV highlights thus far on this visit:

  1. James Holmes in Court (ABC News)

Courtroom footage of real-life Batman villain and ComiConvict James Holmes at his arraignment was broadcast on news programmes just days after shootings in a Colorado cinema. With his Day-Glo-red hair and look-at-me-I’m-crazy mannerisms, it was the most absurd court TV since O.J. Simpson tried to avoid prison by pretending to be Michael Jackson. The Joel Schumacher-worthy performance of mental illness also recalled the trial of New York Mafia boss Vinny ‘The Chin’ Gigante, whose insanity defence was founded on pyjamas. With the orange afro and mad-cap expressions, those who had just woken from a coma they’d been in since the mid-90s may have thought that Carrot Top finally lost it after the prop comedy business went south.

  1. Hoarding: Buried Alive (TLC)

Unlike Bravo who’s every series is a staged-reality variation on Dallas, rival reality network TLC likes to get its hands dirty from time to time. Case in point is Hoarding: Buried Alive which documents the lives of those who by choice-and various undiagnosed mental illnesses-clutter their homes until they resemble post-apocalyptic shantytowns. It’s an archaeology programme of sorts, a search for the lost civilisation of deposit-return. One gruesomely compelling episode saw a mutually-traumatised couple discover a Jurassic Park-quality fossil of their beloved pet Ratcat preserved in faeces betwixt cabinet and wall. In their world of elaborate denial, it becomes disrespectful to put the cat in a bin bag but loving to let him rot for two years in a sewage Breville.

  1. KUSI News Weather Report (KUSI)

In times of extreme weather it’s invaluable to have a meteorological perspective on conditions. That’s why I was so pleased that the weather report on San Diego’s TV station KUSI consisted of the words: ‘Oh wow! It’s really hot out there today’ blazoned across the screen in volcano-red letters with a melting dissolve graphic. Add in a weatherman who squeals like an extra from Deliverance as his signature intro, and you’ve got the kind of local news reporting that would make Ron Burgundy proud!

  1. KFC Online Commercial (

No I’m not turning into Nana Royle! It’s simply that the words ‘Mash potatoes and gravy’ are now etched in my sense memory, following an attempt by G and I to watch an episode of The Bachelorette on As a way of retaining control over viewers’ exposure to advertising in the digital age, networks keep the ratio of content to commercial from broadcast airings in their online streaming. What makes it exponentially more annoying is that it’s the same couple of spots recycled ad nausea. Every few minutes, a KFC commercial which begins with a grandfather asserting his right to choose ‘Mash potatoes and gravy’ as his chosen side, would automatically pop up like a clock cuckoo with bad time management. Has anyone looked into whether James Holmes was a regular viewer of online TV?

  1. Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep on The View (ABC)

Two famously reticent and short-winded Hollywood actors being interviewed by four separate talk show hosts asking questions from all sides? What could possibly go wrong? Presumably as a publicity ritual, stars of relationship comedy Hope Springs Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep were packaged-at what looked like gunpoint at the very least-on to ABC’s late morning magazine show. Streep buried every routine answer beneath deep swallows of nervous laughter and Jones employed the evasive language of a guilty politician to provide the most oblique responses possible. Jones resembled a mute husband on a property programme and Barbara Walters resorted to coaxing elaborations out of him like it was a speech therapy session for a stroke victim. It was can’t-look, how-bad-can-this-get television of the highest order.

  1. Sam the Cooking Guy (Various Stations)

Billed as the ‘everyman’ cook, San Diego-based food writer and presenter Sam Zien’s TV vehicle proposes to ‘make cooking casually understandable’ but could equally be an elaborate ploy to give Anthony Bourdain a coronary. Sam’s cooking philosophy could be described as ‘can-to-plate’ and his method ‘food-arranging’. The production is brazenly shoddy and so is the eat-by-numbers approach to the art of cuisine. In a segment I caught recently, Sam innovated with hot-dog condiments and cursed himself for not buying a turkey frank for his Thanksgiving-themed dog. It’s one thing to lower the culinary bar on TV cooking shows but another entirely to forget the pre-made ingredients.



Top TV Picks

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m just over half way through my stay in the US so here are my Top 5 TV moments from the last two weeks:

  1. Kris Kardashian on morning food show Rachael Ray getting a round of applause for adding parmesan cheese to Pasta Primavera. I still don’t know why.

Ladies and Gentlemen...parmesan cheese!

  1. John Travolta’s cameo as ‘The Dance Doctor’ during Kirstie Alley’s filmed rehearsals for Dancing with the Stars in a classy skit apparently written by the man himself. Travolta playfully pastiched his own performance as Chili Palmer and Elmore Leonard’s cutting dialogue in Get Shorty in his finest and most controlled piece of acting in some years. Almost as good was Kirstie Alley’s disbelief at host Brooke Burke not realizing that this was a pre-written sketch. ‘Really?’, Alley growled, detaching her head from her neck in disapproval, as Burke asked humorlessly what advice Travolta gave to her.
  1. In Anthony’s Bourdain’s No Reservations the self-proclaimed tough guy of fu-cusine and Leonard Cohen lookalike tours the grassroots local food places of Boston with his apparently ker-azy yet to all appearances entirely cogniscent rock star buddy deliberately avoiding the gourmet end of the market ‘and if you don’t like it, fuck you!’. One suspects this mission is not exactly foodie-free once the two mock-fucks start to rhapsodize over the ‘essence of mayonnaise’ in the lobster roll at a Boston seafood joint. Their alcoholic machismo is also somewhat parlayed by the revelation that all hard-boiled toughies can be identified by their fondness for cream soda.
  1. After Grey’s Anatomy star and recording artist Sara Ramirez sings an impromptu rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to host Sherri Shepherd on The View, scary schoolmistress Barbara Walters bluntly informs her that ‘we have to pay any time anybody sings that’.

'We have to pay for that'

  1. On daytime View-clone The Talk Sharon Osbourne begins the show by attempting to explain her way out of a tabloid-reported tax snafu about an undisclosed property lease on filing day. Characteristically candid, self-deprecating and silly, Sharon is unimpeachable no matter what her financial wranglings. What hope does she have with real estate and taxes anyway when she can’t even control a house full of small, shitting dogs. However, by order of the IRS the show has been re-named The Tax.

Lovable rogue Sharon Osbourne

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