Burger Land

Burger Land airs Mondays on Travel Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern. The first three episodes were screened for this review.

What does one have to do to get George Motz’s job?

The self-made Motz empire consists of a film, blog, book, and now TV series, all about hamburgers, and his work day appears to consist of driving around the United States and stopping at burger joints. Yet Motz is unquestionably the right man to have turned himself into a good burger proselytizer. Burger aficionados who haven’t seen his film Hamburger America, or read the book based on it, are in for a treat, as he spends as much time on the culture surrounding the hole-in-the-wall and mom-and-pop burger joints that litter the downtowns and byways of this country as he does the actual food. He doesn’t have time for the mass-produced hamburger experiences of the world. He’s only in it for the local, the tastes-like-homemade, and the unusual.

This makes his new Travel Channel series, Burger Land, just a touch disappointing. What had a lovely, do-it-yourself aesthetic in Motz’s film now has a certain prefabricated taste to it. The film was a bit slow-moving, sure, but it also took its time building up the burger joints that have become icons of their community, with plenty of footage of the day-to-day life in both town and business. The TV series looks and moves like a Travel Channel series, right down to the frequent interstitials of Motz driving his pickup around whatever city he’s in that week to tell viewers about the burger he’s going to devour imminently. It’s one part travelogue, one part food review show, and only incidentally a series of profiles about the people who keep these places running. Yet there’s just enough of Hamburger America in Burger Land to keep things interesting.

In tonight’s première, which will surely run throughout the week, as most Travel Channel series do, Motz visits Los Angeles, one of the undisputed burger capitals of the country, and he does an able job of laying out what a Los Angeles burger tastes like—Thousand Island (or “California”) dressing is often a key component, and being served on wax paper is a good thing—while also occasionally interrupting the action with freeze frames of burgers, complete with giant orange text in Impact, reading “Wax Paper” or some other bit of verbiage that visualizes what Motz is talking about. It’s cute but also a little annoying, as though the producers don’t trust viewers to get what’s going on without having it underlined five or six times in different ways.

Fortunately, Motz has excellent taste in burgers. The stops he makes in Los Angeles—including Pasadena’s Pie ’N Burger and the famed Apple Pan—are all well-known to locals for making a good burger but will seem just out of the way enough to out-of-towners to prompt a visit when they might happen to be in the area. (Or, if it’s the Apple Pan, which really is that good, perhaps simply west of the Mississippi.) Even locals may learn about spots they hadn’t heard of previously, as Motz is good at teasing out out-of-the-way places that deserve to be on the same level as local legends. If the goal of Burger Land is to make viewers hungry for a burger, it more than succeeds at that goal, then offers several possible solutions to the problem.

The whole thing is a touch frenetic—three or four burger joints are squeezed into little more than 20 minutes in all three episodes screened for critics—and Motz, who was behind the camera on Hamburger America, is not yet quite comfortable as a host, laughing a little too hard at lame jokes made by his hosts and generally pushing things a little too much, like an over-relaxed dad on the ultimate vacation. But there’s the core of a good food travelogue in Burger Land, and the series succeeds at its most important mission. With time and the patience to iron out kinks, this could turn into the kind of show that causes viewers to lose hour after hour to weekend marathons, the ideal sort of basic cable time-waster.

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