This week’s question comes courtesy of our TV editor, Erik Adams:
Whether it’s a show you always like to watch when staying in hotel rooms or some other form of entertainment, what pop culture do you enjoying consuming when you’re away from home?
Thank you, modern technology: You’ve made it possible to watch any Mad Men episode in any hotel room anywhere in the world. (I particularly like watching the Conrad Hilton episodes from season three when I’m staying at a Hilton property.) Provided, of course, that the hotel wi-fi’s up to snuff, that the TV has an accessible HDMI input, and that I remembered to bring my Thunderbolt-to-HDMI cable on the trip. When I haven’t, Don and Connie get replaced by the wheelers and dealers of Shark Tank. There’s a dependably modular structure to every Shark Tank episode, which makes the show easy to dip in and out of, and the showmanship of the product pitches stimulates the travel-addled mind just right. It’s entertaining enough to keep me engaged for a few minutes, but not so engaging that I’ll resent the sleep timer for running out. Plus, there’s the off chance that some entrepreneur is going to flame out in front of a guy who refers to himself, in all sincerity, as Mr. Wonderful. Nothing like a nightcap of schadenfreude—unless, of course, that schadenfreude is being served up by “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency.”
Whenever I travel alone and spend a night in a hotel, I immediately find whatever cable channel is showing long blocks of Law & Order repeats (or some similar contemporary network procedural), and I leave that on for as long as I’m in the room. I can’t really explain why. Maybe it’s because those shows bleed into each other indistinguishably and don’t demand my attention. Maybe it’s because the characters tend to speak in even tones, without a lot of loud noise in the background. All I know is that when I need a little bit of sound and light to keep me company when I’m by myself—but don’t want to watch anything that’ll keep me from working, reading, or sleeping—my go-to is the bland modern detective shows that I never bother with when I’m at home. I mark the passage of time in airport-adjacent hotels with the steady procession of Law & Order’s “chung-chung”s.
With all the TV to keep up on and relevant new movies to watch, it’s hard to justify watching Lifetime movies that may or may not be worth the time spent watching them. (Sometimes you just don’t know if it’s wonderfully terrible or just terrible until 60 minutes in.) But hotel time doesn’t count as real time. That’s why I set any hotel television to the Lifetime channel and leave it there. Even if it’s a film I can only catch 20 minutes of, there’s usually enough to keep it entertaining, be it the poor acting, the obvious moral lessons, or—if I’m lucky—a dramatic, over-the-top climax. It’s not difficult to figure out what’s already happened or how it will end.
My first priority on arriving in a hotel room has remained frighteningly consistent for the last 30 years: turn on the TV and find the cartoons. I’ve never invested in cable TV for my home, so having access to entire television stations dedicated to airing animated programming remains a wondrous and magical thing. A few years ago, my wife and I went on a short vacation to San Francisco. We had a beautiful hotel room right in downtown, barely a half mile from the bay. The weather was gorgeous, and we had the whole day ahead of us. There was also an Adventure Time marathon on. Neither of us had seen the show before and we were immediately hypnotized. While we were eventually able to break away from the show’s apocalyptic pop psychedelia and enjoy our time in the city, the rest of our trip remained heavily punctuated with long sessions of lying in bed with the comforter up to our necks, swigging wine straight from the bottle, and watching cartoons.
Prior to middle school, I didn’t have cable. Cable programming was a treat reserved for trips to grandma’s house, after-school hangouts with friends lucky enough to get more than five channels on their TVs, and hotels. My family went to an annual conference hosted in a different city every summer, and the trip meant one very important thing: multiple nights in a hotel. My sister and I would flip through channels looking for something that caught our attention, which is how we happened upon Boy Meets World. The first episode we ever watched was from one of the later seasons, one of the many Cory-Topanga breakup episodes. We knew it was next to impossible, but we always hoped to magically catch the next episode any time we stayed in a hotel. By coincidence, it did seem like Boy Meets World was always airing whenever we stayed in a hotel, but there was no divine intervention that allowed us to see the particular episode we sought. In any case, we started calling it the “hotel show,” and to this day, I hope to be greeted by Danielle Fishel’s face when I click on a hotel television. Thanks to the internet though, I can queue it up in my room regardless, so I finally know what happened next.
I happen to like the anonymous side of travel (airports, airplanes, hotels, etc.), and that’s lent itself to a set of routines. I always bring a book, of which I will read maybe 10 pages during the trip. If it’s a daytime flight, I end up listening to “Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll),” from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, at least three times in a row; it’s a lovely song that sounds even lovelier if you’re looking out into the aisle of a plane’s coach section and the light through the window is catching the ice in your little plastic cup of juice just right. Most of the traveling I do, though, is by car, because my wife’s family lives in southern Missouri. It’s a long drive, and for as long as we’ve been doing it, the soundtrack to my hours at the wheel has been SiriusXM’s less appealing niche channels, which I put on in the hope of being pleasantly surprised. (I don’t need satellite radio to play me music I already like. I’m a grown man; I can do it myself.) Unfortunately, the most I’ve learned is that Jimmy Buffet has a fine voice and that some of his early records are pretty goddamn appealing.
Being away from my current home often means returning to my childhood home. The trips from my apartment in Chicago to my small hometown are filled with nostalgia that almost always includes a viewing of Beautiful Girls. I watched this movie for the first time the summer before I left for Chicago, and it still reminds me of home in all the most obvious ways—especially the line, “Nothing changes in the ridges but the seasons”—and acts as a good way to ease myself back into a former life, which on my last trip landed me in my high school proudly watching my niece graduate exactly nine years after I had. (It also contains one of Natalie Portman’s best performances.)
The only time I ever travel is to visit relatives on major holidays. This means traveling to the same small town in northwestern Indiana several times a year. Somehow, The Big Bang Theory has become an integral part of this ritual. It’s not a show I watch otherwise, but I would imagine that I’ve seen at least 30 to 40 episodes in Indiana over the years. There’s not much to do in that particular part of the world, so gathering around the TV for hours is a big part of family get-togethers, and no one objects to The Big Bang Theory. It’s loud and obvious and predictable in a comforting way. And it’s always on somewhere. Since the show is repetitive, I don’t really have to pay strict attention to follow it, and the characters often yell the punchlines at one another. Plus there’s a laugh track, so there’s no guesswork when it comes to identifying the funny moments. The show has frequent pop culture guest stars, and lots of cool comedians and character actors pop up in supporting roles. I saw a whole episode built around a visiting Judy Greer, and in another show, Eric André popped up in a couple of scenes. I understand why many people despise The Big Bang Theory, but I’m personally glad it exists and that there’s so goddamned much of it.
When I am in motel or hotel rooms I tend to binge on an amorphous field of entertainment known as “shit my wife isn’t interested in.” I listen to a lot of podcasts and watch the kind of silly, ephemeral B-movies my wife doesn’t like because they’re not “good.” I was at a literary festival recently and ended my night drinking cheap beer, eating snack food from a gas station, and watching a movie called Drive Hard. It had been covered in one of my favorite podcasts, The Flop House, and while they usually cover objectively terrible films, they ended up quite enjoying the movie as a goofy, ramshackle B-movie lark. I enjoyed it as well. It was pretty much exactly what I was looking for, and it was nice to see John Cusack enjoying himself in a colorful character-actor part as the eccentrically, perpetually vaping heavy/antagonist. Best of all, it is the kind of thing that would not interest my wife in the least, so it was a win-win all around.
I’m a terribly clichéd English major of a traveler. If a plane or train is involved in my journey, the latest New Yorker will be in my bag. From its infinitely mockable cartoons to its meticulously fact-checked features (those sentences are edited within microns of their lives) and frequently questionable poetry, I dig it all. There’s something so danged luxurious about reading a print magazine, front to back, perhaps because I only seem to do it when already on vacation. I like that for at least a few hours in the cabin of a plane, I’m limited to the reading material I have with me, and if ever there were a publication that could make subjects I’d otherwise have no interest in more enticing, it’d be The New Yorker. I’ll even plunk down the inflated cover price at the airport newspaper stand. Along these lines, wherever I end up, I’ll find the nearest independent bookstore. I love to see how other cities’ shops curate their holdings, which publishers they like, and what readers they bring in. Plus, I usually need something for the return trip.
When I’m outside of my New York City comfort zone, I like to mix it up by going to the movies. Yes, yes, I go to movies all the time at home, and if I’m traveling, I also go to museums and parks and cool restaurants (and, wherever they still exist, record stores), but city nightlife tends to include lots of bars, and I don’t really drink. So one of my favorite things to do when I’m visiting a new city is to seek out its movie theaters; even if the theaters are generic multiplexes, it lends the experience a certain novelty that can power past the middling fare I’m actually watching (I’ve gone on a lot of Labor Day weekend trips). Call me provincial, but I like knowing what it’s like to go to the movies in Paris or Edinburgh or downtown Cleveland. And if not for this habit, my wife and I never would have experienced seeing John Wick in Prague with Czech subtitles—and no English subtitles when some of the bad guys spoke Russian.
Whenever time, money, and geography permit, I opt to do my traveling road-trip style. Don’t get me wrong, I love airports and waiting in line and sharing my personal space with 200 other people. But since I wear headphones all day, every day for my job, it doesn’t really feel like vacation if I’m walking around with my ears plugged up, and unfortunately it’s hard to convince hundreds of my fellow passengers to listen to Godley & Creme’s Consequences, even though it’s an album seemingly tailor-made for long trips. A triple-LP concept album that marked the duo’s departure from 10cc, Consequences tells the story of the weather turning on humankind and bringing about the end of the world. The music is woven around a hilarious radio play with all the male characters voiced by a drunken Peter Cook (you know, the “maiwwage” priest from Princess Bride). The songs are all catchy, self-aware, slightly nostalgic pop. The humor is broad but surreal, in the style of Monty Python, and Cook’s characters are incredibly well delineated. The orchestral interludes rely heavily on the Gizmotron, a motor-powered device invented by Godley & Creme that brushes guitar strings with hundreds of tiny bits of plastic to create an ethereal orchestral effect. It’s a bizarre, hypnotic way to tell a story and an engaging means of passing the time when you’re getting from one place to another.
Maybe it’s because they tend to feature a fair amount of travel, but sports movies are my go-to when I’m on the road. Give me the bus shenanigans of A League Of Their Own or the locker-room antics of Little Big League. On my last trip, I slept for half the flight, but when I woke up, I cued up Moneyball, while my last hotel stay included watching Goon on Netflix. And it’s never too early to start skimming the in-flight movie selections, hoping they’ll include your Major Leagues and your Sandlots (they made three of each).
A recent trip to Pennsylvania for a friend’s wedding allowed me to veg out on a hotel bed and binge on my favorite style of on-vacation TV: reality TV shows in which failing businesses are saved through the power of yelling. You know the ones: a messianic, always-right celebrity swoops in on a failing service establishment, samples their wares, and then screams at everybody he can get his hands on. Soon he’s badgering the owners out of their personality defects, uniting the disparate staff members, and giving the place an invariably tacky redesign. (Then it closes 10 minutes after the camera crew packs up.) The best of these is Kitchen Nightmares, both because Gordon Ramsay is a legitimately charismatic screen presence and the show’s scouts are experts at finding interestingly screwed-up restaurants to rip apart. Jon Taffer’s bellowing on Bar Rescue, meanwhile, can make for a good palate cleanser, especially since dive bars inevitably tend to be even grodier than bad Italian restaurants. But if I start moving on to Restaurant: Impossible or Hotel Impossible, I know it’s time to get off the bed and cut my vacation short.
This is an instance when comfort food is the name of the game. When I’m away from home—and generally only then—I have a tendency to read Star Trek novels. I used to devour every single one of them within a week or two of their release, but that seems like a lifetime ago now. These days, I’m lucky if I pick up a book a year, but you can just about guarantee that when I do, the timing is tied to some trip I’m taking. Also, not that this geeky an admission particularly needs a caveat, but it’s only novels set in the era of Star Trek: The Original Series that I have any real interest in reading. Call me a purist.
When I’m at home, chances are I’m flipping between the Food Network and HGTV, so it stands to reason that my favorite vacation shows combine elements of both channels: the documentaries and original shows airing on PlanesTrains+Automobiles. As far as I can tell, this is a digital streaming network that’s not actually a standard cable channel, but it’s been available in nearly every hotel in which I’ve stayed recently. These shows are compulsively watchable and basically vehicles to showcase non-touristy attractions. For example, tour manager Rick Marino hosts one that looks for off-the-beaten-path stuff to do in all 50 states. (The Florida episode is suitably weird—I kind of want to visit the 1937-built, vintage-looking hotel where Airport ’77 was filmed.) The only issue is PlanesTrains+Automobiles doesn’t have a ton of content, so I’ve seen the hipster “staycation” tour of Brooklyn’s shops and restaurants a bunch and an exploration of Tony Hawk’s San Diego more times than I can count. As background noise to help me fall asleep, however, PlanesTrains+Automobiles fits the bill.