The Layover is so brisk and dense it’s like 24: The Travel Guide, full of talking heads with locals and pop-up tips and hellish split-screens of too many fanciful images to process and the main event, Anthony Bourdain and his sidekick dyspepsia sampling as many cuisine highlights as possible. The idea is to deliver some trusty advice for short layovers in major cities, like tonight's equally dense multi-cultural paradise Singapore. Perhaps counterintuitively, while No Reservations is purposeful yet relaxed, The Layover has no purpose whatsoever, so the goal becomes to pack in as much as possible. As Bourdain discussed in his interview with Joel Keller, he arrives to shoot episodes of The Layover after a camera crew has already shot B-roll footage, so the show winds up much more inclusive than just the 30 or so hours he has to film in town. At every step of his gastronomic journey, Bourdain narrates some alternative options as we drop by, say, a restaurant in Little India or tour the famous Botanic Gardens.
As a travel guide—and the show is nothing if not a pocket guidebook—The Layover succeeds on two strengths. First is the aforementioned multimedia inundation. It never feels like we’re cramming for a test, but it makes a point to cover a lot of ground. Bourdain himself visits five or six eateries on his layover, and the camera crew takes us to at least that many more. Meanwhile, interstitial interviews with locals reveal recommendations for tourists, and maps give us a basic sense of where all these districts are in relation to each other. Combined with the stunning photography, thanks in equal measure to the camera crew and Singapore’s developers, the sensory overload is quite welcome.
The other shoulder is, of course, Anthony Bourdain and his no-bullshit reputation. He’s not especially cranky here, no matter what he says, but he does make a point to dismiss two common tourist attractions—the Singapore Sling cocktail at the Raffles Hotel and the Singapore Flyer, a Ferris wheel that overlooks a gorgeous skyline and costs $25. Instead he offers a range of cheap, fulfilling attractions, particularly the chicken rice, which isn’t necessarily the best dish in Singapore but is the quintessential one.
Naturally the food ranges from mouth-watering to less than appealing, and Bourdain goes to a classic standby: “Looks ugly going in the bowl, but man, is it good.” Thankfully he rejects a late-night eyeball—although it’s important to remember that somewhere Bear Grylls is starving—and the steamed grouper isn’t my cup of tea, exactly, but all of the dishes, from the peanut pancakes to the claypot rice, are deliriously presented, though that certainly owes something to the whirlwind.
In my memory, The Layover relies much more on gastro-tourism than No Reservations, since it’s basically nothing but meals, but I’m not sure that’s true. A friend takes Bourdain to an old flea market where you can buy, among other things, shoes, phone adapters, and wooden phalluses, and he even concocts a spontaneous mission to track down a bootleg of Road House 2. Later he visits an ever-expanding department store/mall/labyrinth where he gets lost looking for souvenirs. And there’s even time left over to extol the virtues of Changi Airport, which Bourdain calls “easily, by far the best airport in the world.” The thing has a movie theater, napping facilities, an art gallery, the world’s longest slide, and some beauty regimen where fish nibble dead skin off your feet, so our host partakes of poolside beverage service and an airport massage before his flight.
It’s hard to blame The Layover for feeling like an advertisement when that goes hand-in-hand with its MO, but it’s also hard to believe the worst thing about tourism in Singapore is that it’s hot and muggy. The beginning has everything but a smiling local with outstretched arms saying, “Come to Singapore!” We learn that everyone speaks English; it’s incredibly clean; Bourdain’s never seen a cop; there’s little traffic; nobody wears suits; there’s free money on the trees, which, by the way, cover half the island, etc., and from what I’ve heard, this is all true. There’s a reason Bourdain and company kicked off the new show there.
It’s also a distinct entity from No Reservations, which is an impressively natural travelogue that uses food as a gateway to exploring a place. The Layover is superficially similar, in that Bourdain arrives in town, narrates some local facts, a friend takes him out to eat, and so on. Both are so fascinated by travel that the editing makes room for everything. And since the tone and style is so tied to Bourdain himself, his shows share the same basic feel. But The Layover is less about learning and exploring and following where curiosity leads than it is about telling and explaining and rushing. Even Bourdain goes from talking about how at peace he is eating at a cheap street stall to realizing mid-monologue that he can’t go home and shower and change out of clothes that smell like sheep guts because he has to wear the same clothes in all the shots for continuity/coverage’s sake. Later, a friend says he looks relaxed; I think he just looks tired.
It should go without saying that that’s not a problem. The Layover is a different show with a different reason for being, and it fulfills its mission with gusto. After an hour in Singapore, we’ve sampled the food and architecture and attractions all over the island, and we’ve gotten plenty of tips for brief stopovers there. Bourdain may not have been at his cranky or meditative best—we probably wouldn’t have had time for a monologue, anyway—but every once in a while, he pulls out a classic bit of wisdom—“Escalators are there to help you walk faster, not to avoid walking entirely, you fat, useless hump”—and you know you’re home.