The third season of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” comes to an end Sunday night (June 8), meaning we’ll have to wait several months for what is maybe the best-reported show on any of the big three cable news channels.
That is a loaded statement, obviously. Bourdain would probably be the first to say he’s no journalist, and he doesn’t go after what we think of as big stories — Sunday’s show about Bahia, Brazil, for instance, mentions the pending World Cup and Brazil’s readiness (or lack thereof) as a host only as an afterthought. And truthfully, the Bahia episode is more about the samba- and caipirinha-filled vibe of the region than any pressing political or social issue.
What the episode and “Parts Unknown” as a whole does exceedingly well, though, is provide a street-level view of a place and its people that goes way beyond a simple travelogue.
Episodes like this season’s trip to Punjab — where Bourdain visited a farm on the border with Pakistan to discuss life in the dangerous region — or past visits to Morocco and Israel have been more enlightening than a hundred traditionally reported news pieces. Bourdain’s curiosity and his and his crew’s willingness to go off the well-worn trail make the show something special.
His Travel Channel show “No Reservations” worked under basically the same m.o., but Bourdain has said affiliating with CNN has allowed him access to places that he couldn’t go with the past show. It seems to have raised his game — “No Reservations” was a really good series, but it could get a little self-indulgent too. “Parts Unknown” doesn’t fall into that trap nearly as often — Bourdain will still fetishize food and his fellow chefs, but he focuses more on telling the story now than he does telling us how the story affected him. It’s a subtle but important change in approach.
“Parts Unknown” is also among the most beautifully shot shows on television, regardless of genre. There’s a moment in Sunday’s opening segment where the host and the camera wind through the streets of Salvador de Bahia at night, as Bourdain talks about feeling lost without a guide; it’s a wonderfully disorienting illustration of what he’s talking about and an example of the brilliant cinematography on display in every episode of the show.
CNN has picked up four more cycles of “Parts Unknown” to air in 2015 and ’16. That’s great news. I’ll likely never be able to travel the way Bourdain does, but I’ll at least come away with a better understanding of the world.
The Season 3 finale of “Parts Unknown” airs at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT Sunday on CNN.