Anthony Bourdain's show
Parts Unknown is (partially) back on Netflix right now.
If you've never watched it, treat yourself. It's an interesting series. One of the things I love about it as an always-learning editor is that Bourdain liked to play around with genre influences. For an episode featuring Francis Ford Coppola as a guest, for example, he combined Spaghetti Western themes with a Godfather-esque feeling. These influences played out both in cinematography and editing choices.
The episode I watched tonight on West Virginia, though, had none of that. Very straightforward in structure and look, it felt like it would've been right at home on between the other CNN shows. In fact, I could very much see Anderson Cooper doing the exact same show. The difference would've been in tone and personality and that's about it.
So it took me some time after I watched it to understand why it also felt like one of his more impressive episodes.
I remember an interview with Stewart Copeland of The Police stating that the drumming work he was most proud of was on Every Breath You Take.
As you can hear, as drums go it's pretty straightforward. None of the flashy fills Copeland is known for. Why is he proud of it? He said that it's harder to keep time with one straightforward pattern that stays the same throughout the song than to play around with it. I'm not a drummer, so I don't know if he meant harder for him or harder in general.
But it was this interview that I came back to when trying to figure out what made the West Virginia episode so good.
The structure is simple. They stick to the basic format of the show, Bourdain goes to an unfamiliar place, eats local food, and has dinner conversations with local people.
But this is West Virginia. Shot within months of the Trump election. Bourdain has made no secret in previous episodes of how he felt about Trump. Again, so far Anderson Cooper could've made this episode and it would've been one of his more forgettable outings.
The difference is that Bourdain isn't a journalist. He never pretends at objectivity. He wears his New York liberal status proudly on his sleeve in every conversation.
Why is the episode so good? Because he listens. He asks questions and then gets out of the way. He lets them speak for themselves even when it's clear he doesn't agree with them. He always, and I mean always treats them with respect. No poverty porn. No condescension. No looking down his nose or ironic juxtapositions in editing.
I think Bourdain himself was a pretty cynical guy. But there is nothing cynical about the way this show was done.
They got the simple stuff right, and got out of the way.
Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do.
Chris babbles about movies,pop culture, life, and weird stuff that occurs to her. Oh, and occasionally something useful happens.