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Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV)
Twenty-three hotel floors above the gritty neon splendor of downtown Las Vegas, I am nearing the end of a bewildering travel experiment: For the past five days, I have been watching the Travel Channel for the entirety of my waking hours, without ever changing the station or (save a few key occasions) leaving my hotel room.
My goal has been to create an intensive, vicarious televisual adventure -- to glean five days' worth of travel experiences from the glowing parameters of a single TV set and figure out what the Travel Channel might be saying about how one should see the world.
In the 77 hours since my experiment began, I have witnessed many wonders. I have, for example, seen three grown men shriek like schoolgirls while locked overnight inside a dubiously haunted English inn. I have learned that ants in the Ecuadorian Amazon taste like lemons, that Gulf Coast raccoons taste like turkey, and that Andean guinea pigs taste like roast pork shoulder. I have learned that nachos are not authentic Mexican food, and that the Japanese have invented a toilet that can both wash and blow-dry your ass. I have seen two separate shows that sing the praises of deep-fried Twinkies, and I've heard the phrase "like a party in your mouth" used to describe the culinary merits of three separate food products. I have seen a restaurant full of Americans cheer like hockey fans while watching two guys devour a 10-pound pizza in less than an hour.
I have also watched commercials -- more than 2000 of them in the course of five days. According to the tally marks in my notebook, I have been invited to visit Jamaica 16 times, been warned 51 times that my existing health insurance might not be adequate for my retirement needs, and thrice been asked to ponder how Cheez-It is able to bake so much cheesy goodness into such small bites.
I have left my hotel three times in the past five days, and been nearly robbed once.
In exactly 7 minutes (once the guy who ate the 10-pound pizza finishes eating a 4.5-pound steak), my TV marathon will culminate with two back-to-back episodes of a show called America's Worst Driver, which -- like many shows on the Travel Channel -- doesn't appear to be about travel.
Brandishing my notebook, I stare at the screen with a fatigued sense of resolve and ponder the events that brought me to this moment.
WHY I CAME TO VEGAS TO WATCH TV FOR A WEEK
Day 1, Hour 2: 10:37 am. I am currently watching a show called Food Fun Factories. Its tagline is "hit the road and put your taste buds to the test," which (given the content of the show) seems to infer that you should plan your vacations around the manufacture of junk food. On the screen, a man dressed as a jellybean is hugging a small child at a Fairfield, California, candy factory.
Since I don't own a TV, I am viewing the action on a 24-inch RCA that sits atop a cream-colored cabinet in Plaza Hotel suite 2333, Las Vegas, Nevada. At $22 a night, it was cheaper to fly to Vegas for the week than it was to rent a comparable hotel room 10 miles from my Midwestern home. My room smells faintly of cigarettes and features a king-sized bed, late-'80s-style muted beige neo-Greco décor, and a synthetic potted plant that probably gets taken outside and hosed down once a year. The casino auditorium downstairs advertises a nightly extravaganza called "The Rat Pack is Back."
I've been intrigued with the Travel Channel ever since I started making my living as a travel writer twelve years ago. Sometimes I'll catch snippets of its programs when I'm staying in American hotels, and in recent years I've occasionally appeared on the network as a talking-head commentator (primarily on a pair of countdown clip-shows about international destinations). These fleeting Travel Channel appearances haven't done much to deepen my understanding of the network (they were filmed by an independent production company), but they have attracted more attention from long-lost friends and family members than all of my books and travel articles combined.
Indeed, the Travel Channel has built up a significant viewing audience since its inception in 1987, a truth borne out by its $975 million valuation when the Scripps media conglomerate bought a controlling stake in the network one year ago. Given this popularity, I've begun to wonder what kind of message the Travel Channel is sending.
Where do we go when we watch travel television? Who do we meet? What do we learn? Since the word television literally means "seeing far," I've decided to tune in for five full days and check out the view.
For the sake of discipline and full immersion, I have resolved not to use my cell phone or the Internet during my experiment. A small plastic cooler holds enough food and drink to last me the week. The only information I'll take in for the next 78 hours will come courtesy of the Travel Channel.
On the TV screen, the candy factory footage cuts away to a hearing-aid commercial hosted by the guy who played Bobby Ewing on Dallas.
Day 1, Hour 6: 2:08 pm. By mid-afternoon the Travel Channel has shuttled me to Alaska, where Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern is dipping a chunk of bowhead whale-flesh into a jar of fermented blubber-oil.
I'm nearing the end of a midday stretch of programming that has featured three of the most popular personalities on the Travel Channel. Zimmern is a jovial, bald, pot-bellied cook from Minneapolis who travels around the world sampling dishes like boiled llama brains and fried deer genitals. Samantha Brown, who appeared at noon on Passport to Great Weekends, is an extroverted everywoman who takes brief, activity-filled trips to popular vacation destinations. Anthony Bourdain, whose show No Reservations aired an hour ago, is a grizzled, articulate, and coolly glamorous chef who travels the world using food as a window into culture.
I'll talk more about each host's respective show as the week progresses, but for now I think I've learned enough to create a drinking game that will ensure Travel Channel viewers get nice and buzzed by the end of a given episode. Assuming one has a bottle of whiskey on hand, it goes like this:
- Bizarre Foods: Do a shot every time Andrew Zimmern nibbles on a morsel of, say, pickled gerbil rectum and stares off into the middle distance for a moment before comparing the taste to pork, beef, chicken or fish.
- Passport to Great Weekends: Do a shot every time Samantha Brown emits a monosyllabic expression of enthusiasm, such as "Yay!" "Ooh!" "Aah!" "Wow!" or "Woo!"
- No Reservations: Do a shot every time Anthony Bourdain does a shot.
Day 1, Hour 13: 9:30 pm. Thirteen hours in, and I've just begun my fourth consecutive episode of a show called Man v. Food, which is hosted by Adam Richman, an affable and hyperactive bloke who seems to be channeling his TV persona through the hybrid aura of Jay Leno, late-period Elvis, and Cookie Monster.
The premise of Man v. Food is that Richman travels to a major American city and declares his intention to eat an insanely large food item -- say, a 30-pound sloppy joe -- in one sitting. For the next 20 or so minutes, Richman visits other popular eateries in his destination city, wolfing down meals in normal-sized portions while continually alluding to the gastronomical challenges presented by the 30-pound sloppy joe. At the end of the episode Richman strides into a restaurant, strips naked, rolls on a condom, and makes wild, passionate love to the 30-pound sloppy joe while a crowd of rowdy locals cheers him on.
Actually, I'm just joking. The host of Man v. Food never technically has sexual intercourse with the food. But if you were required to take a shot of whiskey every time Adam Richman bites into a hot-wing or a cheese-steak and rolls his eyes back with an orgasmic shudder, you would be hammered inside of a half-hour.
Day 1, Hour 16 (plus 2): 3:13 am. I wake up disoriented, the TV blaring some wee-hours infomercial about mortgage relief (the Travel Channel only broadcasts original content for 16 hours each day; the rest is given over to paid programming).
I grab my cell phone and squint at the time. Despite the fact that I spent most of the day sitting down, I nodded off from bone-deep exhaustion less than five minutes into the 11:00 pm rerun of Extreme Fast Food.
Watching a screen all day without having the option to change the channel has been an unexpectedly taxing endeavor: My limbs ache and my eyes burn as I get up to turn off the TV for the night. I have 64 waking hours left in my Travel Channel marathon.
JACKASS COMMENTATORS AND DUBIOUSLY RANKED DESTINATIONS
Day 2, Hour 17: 9:04 am.
The first Travel Channel show of the day has already begun by the time I wake up and turn on the TV. As the picture tube slowly comes into view I can hear some jackass droning on about the gentle wonder of interacting with elephants in Thailand. When the screen finally flickers on I realize that the droning jackass is me.
The show is 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes, which is the Travel Channel's version of a VH1 clip-show where comedians poke fun at celebrities. Instead of comedians, this show features travel writers; the "celebrities" are places, and nobody makes fun of anything. In addition to Thailand, my commentary pops up in segments featuring Venice, Angkor Wat, the Grand Canyon, and the Greek island of Santorini.
The strange thing about this show is that when I initially did my talking-head interview it was entitled 25 Mind-Blowing Escapes -- which means that at some point four destinations were scrapped. Instead of just lopping off the bottom four places, however, the show's producers seem to have scratched out destinations at random. The country of Bhutan, for example, was originally hailed as the world's fifth most mind-blowing escape; now, for reasons that aren't explained, it's not on the list at all. Hence the inherent arbitrariness of any TV show that ranks destinations like they were NCAA basketball teams. Somewhere in Bhutan, the tourism minister is probably hurling is clipboard against a locker room wall.
During a commercial break, I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth and notice that the
haggard, puffy-eyed face staring back from the mirror bears faint resemblance to the
chirpy, advice-spewing version of me that appeared on 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes. I'm
only beginning my second day of the experiment, but my TV marathon has already begun
to take a physical toll.
NOTES ON THE SEMIOTICS OF WATERPARKS
Day 2, Hour 18: 10:42 am. Desperate for variety, I've made my way down to the Plaza
Hotel gym, where I can watch the Travel Channel while I work the treadmill. The gym's
aging TV screen is scorched with a faint grid of keno numbers, but for the most part
it suits my purposes. The only problem is that any time I start running faster than 20
minutes per mile I can't hear anything but the sound of myself clomping along on the
This lends my TV viewing experience a curious new perspective. Right now I'm watching America's Favorite Waterparks while running nine-minute miles. At the beginning of the hour, when I could hear the voiceover narration, this show struck me as a mildly informative little rundown of aquatic fun-parks in the United States. Without the sound, however, the show has become an incomprehensible video loop of teenagers racing down water-slides, young boys getting into splash-fights, and chubby families bobbing in wave pools. It's hard to discern one water park from another. Amid the repetitive flood of images, I begin to notice a persistent visual pattern: Nary a minute passes without another shot of some massive aquatic gravity-tube ejaculating a swimmer through the air on a frothy gush of water.
Somehow I suspect a spunky 24-year-old northern California feminist is at this very
moment hashing out a PhD thesis entitled "Phallocentric Fun-Parks: A Lacanian
Symbology of Patriarchal Imagery and Recreational Male Privilege in American Hydro-
Day 2, Hour 20: 12:55 pm. After nearly two hours of treadmill action I'm back up in my
hotel room, where I'm developing a crush on TV-host Samantha Brown. As I watch her
show, I'm thinking I'd like to marry her for the simple end of diversifying my bloodline
with perky, winsome offspring.
Today Samantha has been cavorting her way through Spain and Italy on a show called
Passport to Europe. At the moment she is learning how to flamenco dance. In previous
scenes she trained as a bullfighter, sampled horsemeat with Italian wine, reenacted a
scene from Romeo and Juliet, and guzzled beer in her hotel room. I like it that Brown is
always drinking on camera. I'm also charmed by her self-deprecating humor, and her raw
exuberance for most everything she encounters.
The weird thing about Samantha Brown, however, is that it's hard to discern what she
does when she's not gallivanting off on a weekend getaway to Valencia or Verona. Whereas personalities like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern work as chefs when they're not on TV, Brown's main line of work appears to be going on vacations for the Travel Channel. This makes it a tad confusing when she "escapes" to the Tuscan countryside or enthuses about "getting away from it all" at a spa in Baja. Just what is it that she's getting away from? Isn't that trip to the spa part of her job?
Hence, while it's easy to imagine what Bourdain does in his spare time (eat, drink, bang
groupies), or what Zimmern does when he's not filming Bizarre Foods (eat, sleep, look up adjectives to describe the taste of seared yak scrotum), I'm at a loss to envision what Samantha Brown does when she's not pretending to go on holiday in front of a TV crew.
A part of me imagines her sitting on the floor of a trash-strewn Hell's Kitchen apartment, snorting crystal meth and listening to Danzig records while she drills hollow-points into
ammunition for her .50-caliber Barrett M82 sniper rifle.
Day 2, Hour 21: 1:55 pm. I've noticed that there's a sameness to the narrative language on all the Travel Channel shows. Since I began my TV marathon, both Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown have used the exact same phrases -- "vacation paradise," "land of contrasts," "it doesn't get any better than this" -- to describe wildly different places and experiences. The words heaven," "breathtaking," "dreams," "treasure," and "unforgettable" are intoned like Travel Channel mantras, and just today I heard the phrases "hidden gem," "secret gem," and "unique gem" on three successive programs.
This type of language belongs to a distinctive media-dialect called "travelese," a word journalist William Zinsser coined in his 1976 book On Writing Well. "Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes," Zinsser noted. "It is a style of soft words which under hard examination mean nothing." At the time Zinsser was alluding to print-based travel journalism, and 35 years later the overwrought cadences of travelese continue to plague magazine, newspaper, and guidebook writing.
The thing is, for all the consumer travel articles sopping with words like "quaint" and "wondrous," the print world offers plenty of verbally disciplined, literary-minded travel reportage by writers like Peter Hessler, Tim Cahill, Susan Orlean, Pico Iyer, Kira Salak, Gary Shteyngart, and Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, travel television does not appear to offer a comparable respite from its more mindless tropes: Almost without exception its program language is indecipherable from that of its commercials.
In saying this, I certainly don't absolve myself from the equation. I've gone years without ever using the word "majestic" in a print story, but I used it twice in less than one minute of airtime on 21 Mind-Blowing Escapes. Beyond that, I described Venice as "romantic," Angkor Wat as "magnificent," and the sunset at Santorini as "magical." Back when I was being interviewed for the show, I'd also pointed out logistical hassles and tourist hordes at all three places -- but those simply aren't the kinds of details that make it into TV clip- shows about travel destinations. Indeed, if the Travel Channel doesn't seem to convey much critical or intellectual substance, it's probably because television itself is a medium that doesn't tolerate nuance and reflection.
The network's sole exception to this phenomenon is Anthony Bourdain, whose No Reservations is at once counterintuitive, given to opinionated perspective, and self- aware of its limitations as a TV show. Yesterday Bourdain guided us off the sun- dappled tourist-trail to visit the eateries of "the three most fucked-up cities in America" -- Baltimore, Detroit, and Buffalo. By the end of show he had done a fair amount of rust-belt dining, but he'd also given the audience subtle lessons in socio-economics, immigration history, and urban planning. In Buffalo, he refused to discuss hot-wings ("you can have Al fucking Roker describe them to you on some other show," he said). Today's Miami-based episode simultaneously skewers South Florida tourist clichés, documentary TV fakery, and the basic assumptions of every other food-travel show on television. A running joke of the episode is Bourdain's stubborn avoidance of Miami's most stereotypical cuisine-culture; he eventually relents during the final moments of the show. "I've finally done the Cuban thing," he quips in the concluding scene, "satisfying my network masters' request."
Day 2, Hour 31: 11:20 pm. I'm nearing the end of another full day of TV viewing. A show about amusement parks, Extreme Terror Rides: Death-Defying Drops, is flickering on my screen. According to my notebook, this is the eighth hour of programming today that has been dedicated to water parks or roller coasters.
Back when I was gearing up for this Travel Channel marathon, my primary guidebooks were media-studies classics like Jean Baudrillard's Simulations, Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, and Todd Gitlin's Watching Television. My hope was that these readings would help me understand the far-flung televisual landscape, lend my travel- TV analysis a postmodern flair, and make me sound smarter than I really am. Most of these writers argue that television is more about creating feelings and sensations than communicating information or conveying reality -- and that has certainly been the case with what I've seen thus far.
The problem with my pre-trip media-theory research, however, is that I geared my expectations toward a cross-cultural mode of travel that doesn't seem to exist on the Travel Channel. For example, I had hoped to harness the insights of science writer Bill McKibben, who pioneered the art of marathon-TV analysis in his 1992 book The Age of Missing Information (which contrasted a full day of multi-channel television programming with a full day spent in nature). When McKibben analyzed travel shows 20 years ago, he noted the irony in the fact that the Travel Channel aired a special on Nuremberg without highlighting the city's notorious reputation for Nazi rallies in the 1930s. "Three things make Nuremberg famous," the Travel Channel chirped on the day McKibben was watching, "its Christmas market, Nuremberg gingerbread, and the Nuremberg sausage."
If the Travel Channel hasn't glossed over many foreign destinations in the past two days, it's because it hasn't shown many foreign destinations. Of the 31 television-hours I've experienced so far, I've spent less than two hours outside of the United States. Thirteen hours of programming have been dedicated to American junk food, 11 hours to American amusement parks. If visual media provides us with a grammar of seeing the world, as critic Susan Sontag once suggested, the Travel Channel appears to be telling us that the world doesn't stretch very far beyond the local fun-park or burger stand.
Day 3, Hour 36: 12:51 pm.
Just one day after having declared my infatuation with Samantha Brown, I'm beginning to feel like the love has faded. As with many relationships, our falling out has been a slow accumulation of irritants.
Since noon, Samantha has been riding hot air balloons, kayaking, and attending drag- queen brunches in Washington, DC and New Mexico. She's been her usual gregarious self, but I've begun to bristle at her compulsion to laugh at things that aren't all that funny, her tendency to affect a faint accent when chatting with people who aren't fluent in English, and her habit of talking over her interview subjects when she gets excited. Sometimes she seems downright ditzy, like the time she sizes up a lunch-counter chilidog in DC and asks her server if she's supposed to pick it up and eat it. (As opposed to what, Samantha? Hanging it over your fireplace?)
The true deal-breaker comes when Passport to Great Weekends drops in on a Santa Fe shamanic healer who appears to have been dreamed into existence by the makers of This is Spinal Tap. All of the hackneyed Aquarian stereotypes make an appearance during the three- minute segment -- the quivering maracas, the middle-aged Caucasian shaman-lady invoking the name of "mother earth," the ridiculously vague messages from the spirit world -- but Samantha just blushes and grins at mystical revelations that would probably apply to 80 percent of the U.S. population. (Sample: "You have a lot of dreams and desires, you just haven't come into a relationship with them.") When the shaman shares a handful of insights that could have been divined by anyone with a Wikipedia-grade understanding of what a Travel Channel host might like to hear ("you have a desire to unite people from different cultures"), Brown gushes that she feels a new sense of purpose.
Looking back on what I've experienced of Samantha Brown in the past three days, I'm pretty sure her most genuine and effective scenes have come when she's been drinking. Next season on Passport to Great Weekends, I'd love to see Samantha go back to Santa Fe with five shots of tequila under her belt and tell that New Age dingbat to stop blowing sunshine up her ass.
WHEN TRAVEL TV HOSTING GETS REAL.
He's the network's equivalent of the short white guy on the basketball team who sinks all
his free throws.
I don't mean that in a snarky way: Zimmern is skilled at establishing good-humored chemistry with his interview subjects, and his segments are sprinkled with solid facts about local geography, history, and culture. His penchant for colorful food comparisons (alligator ribs are "seafoody, like a mild crab"; head cheese is "really just pig jello") offers viewers a tangible sensory reference and keeps the show from turning into a one- note culinary freak show.
Ironically, the most arresting moments on Bizarre Foods come when the host gets caught off-guard and his good-natured fundamentals unravel. Today, for example, Zimmern is eating his way through Ecuador, and despite the charm of his guinea pig restaurant scene ("it's like picking out a lobster," he notes, "just go to the pen and point to the one you want to eat"), the show gains a new level of energy when a rainstorm sends his Amazon jungle excursion into disarray. The stitched-together footage of this incident, which was obviously a rather miserable experience at the time, feels more evocative of an actual travel situation than any of the show's more conventionally exotic setups.
Watching this, I'm reminded of Mark Twain's observation about what happens when a stray cat wanders onstage during a play. The cat, Twain notes, is more intriguing to watch than the dramatic performance because it is not bound by the rules of narrative probability. In the same way, travel -- and, by proxy, travel TV -- doesn't truly get interesting until real events send preparations astray and the traveler is forced to deal with the unexpected.
After a rain-soaked Zimmern munches jungle ants and piranha meat in the Amazon, he is whisked off to see an Ecuadorian witch doctor. At first, when the shaman rubs Zimmern's half-clothed body with a live guinea pig, the encounter plays out like a standard cross-cultural sight gag. But soon the witch doctor begins to whip the TV host with a bundle of nettle-like twigs, raising angry little welts along his arms and torso. "This isn't funny anymore," an increasingly panicked Zimmern implores to his off-screen handlers.
Tonight the Ghost Adventures team is investigating England's Ancient Ram Inn, which
is reputed to be infested with all manner of malevolent spirits. The inn is overseen by an
eccentric old codger who tells our ghost-hunters that the structure was built over a 5,000-
year-old pagan burial ground and is thought to contain the bones of children who were ritually sacrificed. Naturally, this intriguing supposition raises a lot of questions. How, for example, do we know that the burial ground is 5,000 years old? What kind of pagans would have been living here at that time, and what do we know of their funerary rites? If bones have indeed been exhumed on the grounds of the inn and they do indeed belong to children, how does one determine if they are the product of some evil ritual?
Unfortunately the ghost-hunting team, which is led by a self-serious metrosexual named Zak Bagans, possesses the combined reportorial acumen of a jar of Miracle Whip. Instead of calling in the counsel of archeologists and cultural historians, they instead invite the perspective of a "witch," who turns out to be a portly local gal clad in a shiny crayon cape, cherry-red hair-extensions, and a silver tiara. After performing some kind of dagger ceremony ("I call upon the elemental of sylph!" the witch intones), the Ghost Adventures team members prepare themselves for what they call "lockdown."
I never am able to work out the precise methodology of a lockdown, but apparently it involves a lot of yelling, swearing, and rushing around in the dark with sound recorders and night-vision cameras. Most any ambient noise in the house is immediately identified as ghost activity; seeming door-creaks and hall-drafts are recorded, "enhanced," and given subtitles (example: "I don't like you!") that don't seem to correspond to the noises in question. Zak and his sidekicks alternate between hollering threats at presumed ghosts and yelping with fear at random noises.
Imagine three stoners with community-theater experience getting together to reenact the Blair Witch Project, and you pretty much get the gist of what I'm watching right now.
The Plaza Hotel sits at the head of Fremont Street in the aging downtown district of Vegas. The pedestrian walkway here is awash in flashing neon and filled with people: old men dressed in sweat pants; obese couples wearing matching white athletic shoes; groups of college guys clutching large, football-shaped cups full of yellow alcoholic slush. 1980's hits by artists like Tone Lōc and Steve Winwood blast out over public-address speakers. Strip-club marquees tout a feminine ideal that hinges on Eastern European bone structure and overzealous chest enhancement. Casinos glitter in every direction, advertising music extravaganzas, complimentary slot tokens, all-you-can-eat buffets. Kiosks offer cheap jewelry, bumper stickers, novelty underwear.
On any other day I might have seen this place as an epicenter of low-rent artificiality -- but after three waking days of watching travel television, Fremont Street feels startlingly true to life. I walk the streets for nearly two hours, drunk on fresh air and the sight of real human beings.
AMERICA: IT'S WHERE FAT PEOPLE ARE MADE
Day 4, Hour 50: 9:25 am. The narrator of a show called Breakfast Paradise has just announced that he's found a restaurant that will indulge my "deepest cereal fantasies." An hour ago, at a Texas barbecue joint, the same narrator suggested that I would "need a shower after plowing through a mountain of mouthwatering meat." This voice-over specialist, who according to the credits is a guy named Mason Pettit, narrates most of the Travel Channel's non-hosted shows. All of his lines -- be they about cheeseburgers or deep-fried candy bars -- take on the same breathless, self-excited cadences that commercials use when trying to convince football fans that drinking light beer makes them more attractive to beautiful women.
Curious to know how much more food programming I'll have to endure over the next two days, I break one of my self-isolation ground rules: I crack open my laptop, pay the hotel's $9.95 Internet access fee, and check the Travel Channel's broadcast schedule online. Here, I discover that -- in the 31 hours of television I have left to watch -- 6 hours are devoted to theme parks (Extreme Terror Rides, Extreme Water Parks), 2 hours are slated for a reality game-show (America's Worst Driver), and a whopping 23 hours are given over to binge-eating or junk food (Man v. Food, Chowdown Countdown, etc). None of these shows suggest that travel might involve non-consumer experiences, and none of them appear to stray beyond the borders of the United States. Even shows that imply international scope are weirdly agoraphobic: Yesterday, a show called World's Best Megastructures ignored the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China, electing instead to focus on such engineering feats as the New Orleans Superdome and the Mall of America.
I wonder how an Asian or a European might perceive this kind of programming. In previous decades, the global popularity of TV shows like Gunsmoke, Dallas, and Baywatch lent a breezy sense of glamour and intrigue to the notion of American identity. The Travel Channel, on the other hand, seems to suggest that 21st-century Americans are noisy, incurious half-wits who spend most of their time riding roller coasters and gobbling down oversized portions of greasy food.
Day 4, Hour 51: 10:41 pm. I'm trying to think of a way to describe the sensation I get while watching a series called Food Wars. The best analogy I've come up with is "time travel": I feel like it's 1991, and the writers of The Simpsons have dreamed up a farcical future where life's most banal diversions have been transformed into idiotic game shows.
At its most basic level, Food Wars doesn't seem like an inadvertent parody. The program explores how a given dish (hot wings, Italian beef, cheese-steak) has evolved into an authentic expression of culinary life in an urban community. Each episode examines local restaurant rivalries (Al's Beef v. Mr. Beef in Chicago; Duff's v. Anchor Bar in Buffalo), and uses blindfolded taste-tests to determine which joint serves the best meals.
Unfortunately, the show's producers have infused these civic food rivalries with a sense of hyperbole and fake enthusiasm usually reserved for professional wrestling matches. Each Food Wars episode features awkwardly staged sequences where supporters of rival restaurants march through the streets waving homemade banners and screaming insults at each other; other segments feature breathless talk of "top-secret" recipes, and commercial-break cliffhangers promising "shocking" conclusions. The host, a petite, high-strung brunette named Camille Ford, spends a good portion of each episode pumping her fist in the air and yelling her lines over crowd noise. Dramatic music accompanies the final segment, as portly white folks masticate chicken wings or beef sandwiches in slow-motion close-up, their chins smeared in hot sauce, their teeth slicked with animal fat.
According to the schedule, Food Wars: Buffalo and Food Wars: Chicago will be rebroadcast twice more today -- which means I have until bedtime to come up with a plausible theory for how shows like this end up on the Travel Channel.
Day 4, Hour 60: 7:32 pm. Midway through the evening showing of Food Wars I lose my patience and head downstairs to wander the gaudy, mazelike corridors of the Plaza Hotel casino. I've been living on bottled water, baby carrots, and trail-mix all week, so I've decided to splurge on a meal at the Plaza's buffet restaurant, which is, appropriately, called "Stuffed."
Like most thrift-conscious Middle Americans, I cannot discipline myself in all-you-can-eat environments. After several platefuls of lukewarm food (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lasagna), I stumble back to my room, unbuckle my belt, and turn on an episode of what turns out to be Extreme Pig Outs. Watching this show on an overfull stomach is kind of like barricading oneself into a broom closet to watch a show about claustrophobia. Nauseated, I fetch the remote, and -- for the first time in more than 60 waking hours -- change the station.
As I surf through the channels, I'm stunned by how much travel programming I find outside of the Travel Channel. VH1's Price of Beauty shows Jessica Simpson interacting with Indians in Bombay; the Discovery Channel's Man v. Wild shows Bear Grylls trekking through the Moroccan Sahara. An Animal Channel program examines the lives of Africans who live on an elephant preserve; a History Channel show depicts Mexican migrant workers embarking on a less-than-romantic sojourn through California's produce fields.
I flip my way through the channels, spotting more depictions of the non-American world in one hour than I've seen in four days of watching the Travel Channel.
Day 4, Hour 64: 11:53 pm. After three hours of channel surfing, I've noticed that my lizard-brain subconscious is intrinsically drawn to flashy, noisy, high-energy shows. The sight of an exploding car, for instance, sucks me into 20 minutes of the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters; the spectacle of a soccer riot inspires me to watch two segments of MSNBC's Caught on Camera. At one point I'm flipping through channels when I'm entranced by a mob of frumpy Americans chanting in unison inside of a restaurant. I watch, intrigued, for ten full beats before I realize that the mob's attention is focused on three people eating hot wings.
I have, it appears, been suckered into another rerun of Food Wars.
Pay close attention to the end-credits of Food Wars, and you'll see that it's created by the same production company that found ratings success with Man v. Food. These two programs are emblematic of what appears to be the Travel Channel's status quo: Both shows are less about travel than junk food; both are saturated with overstatement and phony energy; both are hosted by loud, charismatic actors whose talents lie less in culinary insight than standard-issue enthusiasm (sample comment: "I'm a little star-struck by this food's awesomeness!"). In addition to being able to lure in random channel surfers (including me) with such off-kilter energy, both Food Wars and Man v. Food use a contrived sense of competition to tease out that old Aristotelian dramatic question: "How will this all turn out?" Somehow, this keeps enough folks watching to make these shows popular.
Fifty years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin noted that mass media is less about its content than its audience. "The mass, in our world of mass media, is the target and not the arrow," he wrote in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. "It is the ear and not the voice. The mass is what others aim to reach." As I watch Food Wars for the third time today, I sense that the Travel Channel has no guiding philosophy beyond raw ratings numbers. Were producers able to attract a sizeable audience for, say, Macramé Wars, or Man v. Hygiene, I'm certain the Travel Channel would make room on its schedule.
I have 16 waking hours left in my television marathon, and it feels like the whimsical travel metaphors that inspired this experiment have yet to find much traction: I may as well be watching a network called the "TV Channel."
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.
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.
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.