Say one thing about Anthony Bourdain as a travel-TV-show host: He doesn't mind risking the occasional visit to a place that may register as a downer. His new season premiere, in which he checks in on Haiti in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and learns that a hurricane is threatening to roll in—"This is a bad time to live in a tent," observes one of the locals—isn't the most hair-raising hour of television he's ever done; the time that he and his crew just happened to be filming in Beirut when war broke out between Lebanon and Israel set a high bar. But it does make the post-Katrina episode in New Orleans look like Gidget Goes Hawaiian.
Bourdain's aging-hipster-with-portfolio persona continues to wear well. He's smart enough to know when it behooves him to let his cynical exterior slip enough to betray a trace of heart and intelligent enough to seem just embarrassed enough about his tender side to ward off any trace of smarm. And in a setting like Haiti, he knows how to grapple with complicated feelings without making a fool of himself. He seems like a honest man and one capable of expressing himself. Seen scarfing down lunch in a public place, Bourdain supplies the narration: "When you make television anywhere, people stop and stare. Crowds form. Usually, they're just curious. Here, we notice the kids, gathering just outside the view of our lenses. Not looking at me or the cameras, but looking at what we're eating. One plate of food would be a good day for any of them, and here, I'm painfully aware, I'm eating three."
Bourdain and his crew decided to "buy out" the lunch lady's supply and have her serve it to the locals. Considering how easy it would have been for the show to edit the footage to produce whatever results they thought would best please the audience, Bourdain's description of what happened next is worth including: "What happens is both predictable and a metaphor for what's wrong with so much well-intentioned aid effort around the world. Hungry people anywhere behave like hungry people. When you've got big kids and small kids, young people and old, many of whom haven't had a meal in days, in the real world outside of the commercial in our minds, people get whacked with a belt."
Here—as in his observation that the "elections [that] are coming" are "a cause for both hope and dread around here, a source of passionate discourse, and also a process that's traditionally [bleep!]-ed up beyond the most lurid imaginings"—you're likely to be reminded that the bestseller that got TV producers interested in Bourdain was not a cookbook. Images are supposed to be the reason for being to a show like this, but what keeps No Reservations interesting and fun after all this time is that Bourdain has a complicated sensibility and as writer-narrator, is able to put it to work, enriching the pretty pictures. The show works in a fair amount of history and cultural references with its travelogue material, and it's nice that, for instance, when Bourdain is seen holding a copy of Graham Greene's Haiti-set novel The Comedians, you know that it wasn't tossed into his lap by a producer, who then had to spend twenty minutes explaining to him that it wasn't by the guy who was in Dances with Wolves.
Interesting people indigenous to the region tend to turn up on No Reservations; sometimes, they qualify as celebrities, of the caliber of Harvey Pekar, trying to think of something to bitch about while breaking bread with Bourdain in Cleveland, or Felicia "Snoop" Pearson of The Wire, whom Bourdain confused in Baltimore when he suffered an uncharacteristic attack of the hoity-toitys and seemed to expect to be given some sort of utensils with which to attack his oysters. In Haiti, Bourdain meets up with Sean Penn, who's hard at work doing hands-on philanthropic work for the poor bastards left homeless after the quake. Penn is to be congratulated for what he's doing there and is perhaps even to be admired for being willing to appear on camera looking a bit like Popeye on a bad hair day, but the poor dude just doesn't know how to express his good intentions without sounding well-meaning in the worst way, and he drags the show down every minute his gums are flapping. A lot of viewers who first tuned in to No Reservations for the pictures probably wound up staying for the talk, especially when Bourdain is talking. It has less to do with food than any other show on TV starring a famous chef, but it's a solid reminder that even a travel show benefits from having someone around who knows how to use his mouth.