It’s been a rough era for travel television. While COVID kept us all cooped, looking at other, faraway places on a screen could feel somewhere between punishment and pipe dream. Even Anthony Bourdain, paradigm of thoughtful living room escapism, could be tough to stomach, the wound of his passing even today seeming too fresh. And just around the time one didn’t have to risk looking like a total miscreant for boarding a plane for pleasure, along came Stanley Tucci, manicured, casually classy, nibbling gnocchi, appearing the way we all imagine ourselves in our vacation outfits, in Searching For Italy. As if it had been lost, as if the country hasn’t been one of the top travel destinations in the world for hundreds of years. But something still seemed a little off, or maybe, it was what Eater writer Bettina Makalintal pointedly opined in her piece titled “I Am Tired Of Watching People Go to Italy.” The show was canceled after two seasons.
Wherever we are, be it post-COVID or near-post-COVID or lull-in-COVID, whilst dodging Greta Thunberg “flight shaming,” or incorporating that into vacation time reckoning, such travelogues seem to need not just a rebirth but a reimagining. Enter Eugene Levy, whose show The Reluctant Traveler premieres February 24 on Apple TV+, and some banal quote, not just by a great philosopher, but one attributed simply to “a great philosopher,” who once said “‘the world is a book and those who don’t travel read only one page.’” To which he follows, “I’ve read a few pages and I’m not crazy about the book.” From this voiceover intro, he’s already mid stride into his schtick of seductive mildness.
All professorial specs but guy-next-door befuddlement, an immovable silver quaff, expressively furrowing Scorsese brows, Levy steels himself to take on adventures, nudged along by some unseen and unknown motivations. He alternates between passive exasperation and polite flummox, always keeping a lid on with that button-down kind of Canadian conservatism. A constant half-grimace gives the type of disappointed dad energy of a tired man corraling multiple toddlers at an unfamiliar airport, one who has yet been unable to locate a beer. Or maybe one wondering as to why the lawnmower didn’t start on the first pull. It’s an air so close to knowable, real, and because he’s not your dad it all seems affable, or at least more sympathetic than annoying. Maybe it’s because his attitude is always somehow more smart aleck than smart-ass. Whatever it is, Levy’s characters come with a three-dimensional grounding, a soft humanity within the ridiculous likes of Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show, giving a genuine pathos to such insular worlds of absurd passion and ridiculous dreams.
With a sort of naivete, he outlines, continuously, the reluctance of the show’s title: “I don’t look forward to traveling for a number of reasons,” “I don’t have an adventurous spirit,” “I’m more the great indoors type of guy.” He’s constantly uncomfortable in this world he’s spent avoiding, and nearly every episode he seems to ask some form of “would I have done this, on my own?” Arriving, every time, at “probably not.”
But maybe I should try something different is not really much of a frame for an adventure tale, especially with so many obvious contextualizations seeming, today, right at hand. Chef’s Table, as a kind of wandering foodie melodrama, seems overproduced almost with the intention of getting the type of loving mock that Guest and Levy penned together for folk music in A Mighty Wind. (Levy also co-wrote Guffman and Best In Show.)
Instead, he takes viewers along, for some reason or none at all, to a beautiful and random menu of places, skirting through, barely enjoying, warming up, coming out with bow-tying Hallmark sentiments: “It’s the families that are keeping the cities alive.” Perhaps when you start from a shoulder-shrug point of “I’m 75, and maybe it’s time to expand my horizons,” this is as deep as you might dive.
Levy starts in Finland, standing in the snow wondering about the feelings in his extremities, getting picked up in a snowmobile, sliding slickly forward in a land of huge hats, toward the Aurora Borealis and Insta-ready snowbound luxury cabins. It’s hard to put much stock in the fish-out-of-water narrative, even when he’s ice fishing, even when he’s digging his own hole with an impossibly Herculean looking corkscrew. Abundant warmth and lavish robes always feel just beyond the camera’s scope. Eventually, he follows along on some humorless husky sledding and vodka flights, reindeer tasting and reindeer feeding. There are pedestrian observations about clean air and happy people, conversations about Finnish “sisu,” a national ideal of stoic determination. Or something. It is broached and rehashed and recycled and attempted to be made a punchline out of so often that it seems to lose meaning.
It’s the same with the Costa Rican notion of “pura vida.” The phrase gets tossed around, used as a greeting, as a catchall tag near to the point of mockery, as Levy waxes on the tropical humidity and “general clamminess” of the place. The Nervous Nelly routine wears a bit thin on a jungle night hike populated by bullet ants and eyelash vipers. His guide’s easy smile, not to mention his room’s sliding door, shows that danger is anything but imminent. “I’m just not good with volcanoes,” he says, once again accentuating the out-of-his-element status. But it’s clear by episode two this is a man out of his element anytime the AC hums a bit too loud. He at least gets off one of the only funny lines of the early episodes, while realizing the mountain shadowing his $1K-per-night stilted jungle cabin is actually a volcano: “I was hoping it’d be more dormant.”
Such humor seems washed away by Venice, though, as the audience, yes, finds itself back in Italy. From the patio of the Gritti Palace, a favorite of the likes of Liberace and Chaplin, he seems bothered by the bustle of water taxis. He tempers appreciation for dried cod with an ill-toned beat of “I was expecting cat food.” He fawns over the hair of a gondolier, bristles at the advice of “go get lost” with a “that is so not me,” and winds up with raviolis, shaped like gondolas, fork action going in slow motion, strings swelling like this was a Proustian moment. “This is outstanding food,” he feels, eventually ending the evening with a dessert made to look like a cigar while sitting at Ernest Hemingway’s old table.
Having never been to Venice, we can still confidently say this is not an authentic experience of Venice. Or maybe that is jealousy and annoyance at the hotel itself, which starts at around $1,250 a night. Such an Orbitz search might finally beg the question: Who is this show for? Turns out that price wouldn’t even get you half-a-night at the resort he bags as headquarters for helicopter-traversing and such in Utah.
At the core of it all seems to be a marriage of “I can say I’ve been there” sentiment and one-percenter accommodations he barely wants to leave. It’d be hard to find a travel motivation more base, less Bourdain. Even when he finally takes a polar plunge in the backwoods of Finland, it is done in a cozy flotation suit, warm and protected, aptly skimming along the top of things at a scrunched-nose remove.
It’s hard to deny, or stop rooting for, Levy and his disarming sweetness, that nearly cheerful orneriness, his resounding nerdy normalcy. Even, or especially when, playing a bit of a cuck, his characters all seem loaded with history, with frustration and disappointment not of the lofty poet sort, but of the dentist with a dream. Of the loving Terrier dad.
“People say, ‘You must have been the class clown.’ And I say, ‘No, I wasn’t. But I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him,’” he straight faces as Dr. Pearl in Waiting For Guffman, a line so perfect it seems like an echo of the character, the actor, the writer, the man. Here he is the class clown. A role that, to his credit, he’s always seemed far too nice, too even, too comfortingly average to fully embody. As Gerry Fleck in Best In Show, in a beautiful aside of the sort where Levy always sparkles, he laments, “I have two left feet.” Seeing him so front and relentlessly center stage, it makes this kind of physical shortcoming almost literal—again. It also makes most of the steps of this travelogue more meandering, less revelatory, and not very funny.
The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy premieres February 24 on Apple TV+