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Eating, Talking, and Listening: The Final Season of ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’

The seven-episode season was finished after Bourdain’s death in June and is a tribute to his life and legacy, on TV and beyond

Anthony Bourdain CNN/Ringer illustration

On Sunday evening, CNN premiered its final season of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The season premiere features the late Bourdain’s fellow CNN correspondent, W. Kamau Bell, the host of United Shades of America, on a tour of Kenya — a first-time destination for Bourdain’s roaming television crew.

The Kenya episode may be the first of the season, but it’s also the final complete, conventional installment of Parts Unknown; the rest of the season was produced after Bourdain’s death in June. The six remaining episodes will feel different: In lieu of Bourdain’s classic narration, they will feature voice-over commentary about the reporting locations from each episode’s guests. The final two episodes will pay tribute to Bourdain, concluding his show and recapping his legacy, which endures far beyond any one destination.

In Kenya, Bourdain and Bell discuss the African diaspora. Bell enters the episode as Bourdain’s guest, but he quickly establishes himself as the episode’s dominant perspective — an African American comedian and civil rights activist who is anxious to visit his ancestral home for the first time. Throughout their travels together — at modest dining tables and atop gorgeous hilltops — Bell describes the disparities and tensions between black American identity and black African identity. Bell explains his trepidation about “doing right by this culture,” which gave him his name, Kamau. Bourdain listens. The final, posthumous season of Parts Unknown will end with all-consuming tributes, but it begins with Bourdain doing what he does best — eating, talking, listening.

Cable channels and video-streaming services have followed Bourdain’s example: There’s now far more thoughtful and adventurous food programming than there was at the start of Bourdain’s television career 16 years ago. Michelin-star television, such as Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious, is now a subgenre unto itself. In 2018, prestige television has at last welcomed a great variety of middlebrow food programming, with expensive production values and regard for culinary auteurs the world over. Still, paradoxically, there are no shows quite like Bourdain’s original food travelogue, No Reservations, or his second series, Parts Unknown. No Reservations, which the Travel Channel aired for nine seasons, marked Bourdain’s roguish, experimental phase: The dauntless host blended his boundless (and often disastrous) appetite with political insights and prevailing humanitarian convictions about his subjects. In Parts Unknown, now in its 12th season, Bourdain styled himself more as a TV journalist at-large, a true CNN correspondent, reporting on a scandalous political feature from Tehran and interviewing Barack Obama in Hanoi.

In the course of a decade, Bourdain outgrew the basic expectations that viewers might bring to a food show. Bourdain’s travelogue became reportage. His culinary career became a sustained political critique about various reactionary concerns, including totalitarianism, colonialism, and U.S. foreign policy. Ultimately, Bourdain crafted a longform reporting style that resembles no other serialized programming on Western television. Bourdain’s travels were enviable, even when his accommodations were far from extravagant or even peaceful. His segments were smart and purposeful, but also as fun as any good night out on the town. Bourdain revealed the distance between food criticism and political concern to be nonexistent. His affable manner and journalistic curiosity (and a few beers) helped Bourdain reconcile the two realms with humorous ease.

Television forged Bourdain’s stardom, but it wasn’t the entirety of his life’s work. He left other unfinished business that only he, the global foodie ambassador, could have dreamed up. For four years, Bourdain led an effort to develop an international food emporium, Bourdain Market, at Manhattan’s Pier 57. Bourdain Market was an ambitious but unwieldy project — the news reports surrounding its troubled development described a mythical bazaar to host all the world’s chefs, ingredients, and cuisines. Ultimately, Bourdain scrapped the project, citing frustrations with local real estate and international visas. Bourdain shuttered the project six months before his death. In the three months since Bourdain’s passing, there’s been an outpouring of sympathies and remembrances, but there’s been no attempt to revive the monumental undertaking that summarized his diplomatic ambitions — an undertaking that might have ideally memorialized Bourdain with a communal liveliness befitting his global mission. Still, we’re left with his television show, his writings, and his indelible impression. In television, Bourdain’s genre now bears his influence: The shows are provocative documentaries about culture, history, and politics now. Parts Unknown will pass into reruns, carrying Bourdain’s authoritative tenor into a syndication that can only faintly answer him. In his show’s final season, Bourdain’s guests will host the restless traveler one last time.