Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part V

Where does the Travel Channel take us? Rolf Potts embarks on a
one-week gonzo experiment to find out

THE REAL WORLD IS LACKING IN PLOT-RESOLUTION

Day 5, Hour 67: 12:53pm. This morning, while playing hooky from my Travel Channel marathon, I was nearly robbed by a couple of con artists in a downtown Las Vegas alleyway. Or at least I think I was.

It all started during Chowdown Countdown, a program which (in keeping with the junk-food programming of the past couple days) was on a six-hour mission to reveal the top 100 places in America to eat oneself into a food coma. I lost my patience with the show three hours in, and went out to wander the streets of downtown Las Vegas.

I wasn’t two blocks from my hotel when an over-friendly fellow wearing mirrored sunglasses sidled up and asked me the time. His blond hair was parted in the middle and gray at the roots, and he sported a faded flannel shirt that made him look like a lumberjack from some 1980’s paper towel commercial. I told him it was half past eleven; he fell into step with me and announced that he was a professional gambler. After a few minutes of banter, he suggested I go with him to “win some money” at the Golden Nugget casino.

Everything about this man’s manner — his calculated gregariousness, his curiosity about how long I’d been in town, his quick insistence on moving to a different location — marked him as a tourist-town hustler. But after four days in front of a hotel-room TV, I was as energized by the novelty of human conversation as I was curious to know what he was up to. As we walked and talked a few more blocks, however, the man made brief eye contact with a wiry, hard-faced, brown-haired guy who fell into step behind us when we took a shortcut through a parking-garage alley. Suddenly spooked, I spun on my heels and walked back out to the street. Neither man said anything or tried to stop me.Now, back in my room, still hopped up on adrenaline, I’m having trouble focusing on the Travel Channel’s ongoing parade of cheeseburgers and jumbo burritos and cheery voice-overs. What kind of scam, I wonder, were the paper-towel lumberjack and his partner running? Was it some orchestrated grift that involved actual gambling, or was it a standard-issue mugging? Was it a day-long confidence scheme designed to fool me out of thousands, or were they just looking to score a fast ten or twenty? Is it possible that the guy wasn’t a con artist at all — just an oddly outgoing gambler with a creepy friend?

It’s difficult to know for sure, since — unlike the folks on television — I don’t have a voice-over narrator to explain what just happened.

IT’S NOT THAT HARD TO MAKE FUN OF TELEVISION

Day 5, Hour 78: 10:46pm. The home stretch of my TV marathon is devoted to two hours of a show called America’s Worst Driver. On the screen, half-a-dozen contestants take turns steering their cars through a wacky parking-lot obstacle course. The loser, we are continually reminded, will have their car destroyed by some kind of giant robotic dinosaur. I glance down at my notebook, where after 45 minutes of watching this show, I’ve scribbled and underlined a single word: “Forgettable!” I can’t help but think how much better this show would be if it skipped the obstacle course and forced contestants to, say, pass a driving course in Beijing, or ride motorcycles across India’s Grand Trunk Road during the monsoon, or steer school buses through the Peruvian Andes.

Part of my ambivalence with America’s Worst Driver, no doubt, is rooted in the repetition and physical tedium of experiencing TV nonstop for the better part of one week. Had I just watched, say, the “Rolf Potts is Awesome Channel” for the past 78 waking hours, I’d probably be ready to strangle myself about now. Still, shows like America’s Worst Driver underscore how reliably shallow and brainless the Travel Channel has been since I started watching it nearly five days ago.

Back in the 1990s, when television was thought to have a much greater influence on Americans’ lives than it does now, media critic Mark Crispin Miller noted that part of TV’s appeal lies in its very vacuousness. “We watch TV because we know it is stupid,” he wrote, “and we enjoy the feeling of superiority it provides.” This in mind, much of what I’ve said in the past five days is inseparable from my own, faintly snobby assumptions of what the Travel Channel should be in the first place. As someone who’s been fortunate enough to wander the world on the cheap for much of the past 15 years, I love travel best when it’s slow, immersive, global in scope, and laced with ambiguity — qualities that don’t always lend themselves to the attention-span-driven demands of commercial television. Indeed, to obsess too much on the shortcomings of the Travel Channel would be (to paraphrase the Buddha) akin to complaining that a banana tree won’t bear mangoes.

In a way, what I’ve been doing here all week is a rather quaint exercise. Part of the reason I don’t own a television is that one doesn’t really need to anymore. If I’m really interested in seeing a given TV show I can usually stream it on my laptop — and some of the best new video content, travel or otherwise, is made by amateurs and uploaded to sites like YouTube. One of the most jarring aspects of watching a traditional TV channel all week has been sitting through the ads — something I don’t have to endure when I have the option of checking headlines or multitasking emails in another browser tab. Thus, the glut of advertisements I’ve seen on the Travel Channel (31 per hour on average, according to my notes) makes cable television feel like a throwback to another era. Were it not for the wearying repetition, these earnest little come-ons for Kool Aid and Meow Mix and Kraft Singles would feel charmingly nostalgic.

Even after the appearance of the giant robotic dinosaur, I’m at a loss for what else I might say about America’s Worst Driver. I stay up until the credits roll at midnight, then end my Travel Channel marathon with an unceremonious thumb to the remote control.

WHAT TRAVEL TV COULD ONE DAY BECOME (BUT PROBABLY WON’T)

Day 6, Hour 80 (plus 3): 11:11am. A few hours before I fly out of Las Vegas, I find myself flipping through the TV channels while I wait for the airport shuttle. Sick as I am of the Travel Channel, I’m soon engrossed in a No Reservations rerun that investigates the cuisine (and, by proxy, the history, culture, and economics) of the Texas-Mexico border area.

If there were an ideal indicator of what the Travel Channel could one day become, it would be Anthony Bourdain’s refusal to devolve into a telegenic caricature. The No Reservations host is consistently hip and insightful and funny — but what makes his show stand out is that he’s not afraid to express his real opinion about things. It’s astonishing how seldom this happens on travel shows. The Travel Channel sheepishly alludes to this in its Bourdain promo teasers, suggesting that there’s an upbeat, camera-friendly “Good Tony,” who likes what he eats and sees, and a snarky, irritable “Bad Tony,” who drinks too much, despises culinary clichés, and ridicules his producers. In other words, Bourdain has the temerity to express a point of view that goes beyond the tidy, self-contained dictates of television.

In the Texas-Mexico border episode, for example, Bourdain refuses to buy into stereotypes — pointing out how American perceptions of Mexican border towns are “more a reflection of our own darker, wilder sides than a true reflection of Mexico.” His take on Mexican drug culture is equally pointed: “With all the attention Mexico’s drug cartels have gotten satisfying America’s bottomless hunger for illegal drugs,” he says, “you might be surprised to find there’s nearly as much business catering to grandma’s bladder-control problem or grandpa’s erectile dysfunction.” As he travels the border region, eating street-food tacos in Mexico and chicken-fried steak in Texas, Bourdain variously pokes fun at his cameraman, debunks the notion that nachos are authentically Mexican, alludes to George Orwell, buys a stash of Demerol, and meets a Veracruz-born chef who prepares the finest Japanese cuisine in Laredo.

In hosting a show so stubbornly wedded to his unique sensibilities, Bourdain hints at a universally relevant notion: that travel — if one can view it as more than a consumer act — has a way of revealing a world more complicated and exasperating and unexpectedly delightful than one could ever imagine sitting at home.

The ironic implication here, of course, is that one can’t experience this richer world without first turning off the television.

Twenty-three hotel floors above downtown Las Vegas, I brandish the remote and do just that.

[Read more of Rolf Potts' series Around the World in 80 Hours here]