Slouching Towards St. Louis

A journey through the Travel Channel.

The Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures 

The big TV-business story of the week reached its resolution yesterday with news of a deal valuing the Travel Channel at $975 million. The only justification for such a price tag is that network’s modest audience—about 370,000 households in prime time—represents the kind of niche market advertisers can’t resist pandering to. In a week of flying the network frequently, I caught commercials for online travel agencies and chain restaurants—and also tourism-themed ads for LensCrafters, Subaru, Wal-Mart, and Dulcolax stool softener.

We can see clearly that the channel offers pointers to globetrotters and fantasies to armchair vacationists, but we see less clearly who its ideal viewer is. The lineup is confusingly diffuse. Does any one person above the age of 12 appreciate both the paranormal horseplay of Ghost Adventures and the diet cheesecake of Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches? What is a nature documentary like Earth’s Natural Wonders doing alongside the status porn of ResidenSea: The Floating City? In profiling a cruise-ship luxury-condo community, that last showpresents a David Foster Wallace vision of the abyss. A servant austerely explains the challenges of operating a seaborne humidor. The librarian, her face muscles somehow mobile under many coats of rouge, speaks of her side gig as a lounge singer. The passengers inform us that their souls are in storage on a container ship trailing in the ocean liner’s wake.

Moving from the hellish to the merely purgatorial, we discover Samantha Brown, the host of shows including Passport to Europe and Great Weekends. She seems to be a very nice lady—just the person to lead those 12-year-olds on a field trip. But she is also a painfully uncool person, as her chirping spunkiness makes gruelingly apparent. She self-identifies as “a foodie.” She coos on seeing that her chambermaid has twisted a bath towel into the shape of a swan. Strolling among punks and bohemian kids at London’s Camden Market, she does a double take at a girl dressed in a basic Gothic Lolita pinafore dress: “I mean, c’mon! Where else ya gonna see that?” Has she never been to a shopping-mall food court? Brown is a tour guide who needs to get out more.

Andrew Zimmern, the pot-bellied host of Bizarre World and Bizarre Food, would make a far better seat neighbor on a transoceanic flight, provided that his small talk did not traffic in the hyperbole of his shows’ titles. Genuinely bizarre travel shows would explore leather bars in Amsterdam, cannibal barbecues in remotest Melanesia, acid trips at Six Flags. His feature lobster dinners in Maine.

To be fair, he does regularly bear witness to cultural rarities, including Santeria rites in Cuba, and he does savor such dishes as a Korean fish snack with the texture of “a Q-tip covered in Vaseline.” To be sure, more truthful titles—Rather Interesting Places? Nice Things to Eat?—wouldn’t really fly. To be clear, many a travel show deals in extremes, excesses, and superlatives. To wit, Man v. Food seeks to prove that a gastronomist can never have too much of a good thing, however much his body might object to the notion.

Most episodes of Man v. Food begin with host Adam Richman dropping into an American city and announcing his intent to commit an elaborate crime against his alimentary canal. (In a typical instance, he introduces St. Louis’ locally famous Crown Candy Kitchen and its standing challenge to diners to slurp down five 24-ounce malt milkshakes in half an hour.) Then, in scenes functioning like the undercard bouts at a championship boxing match, he goes about town eating tasty things in nonrevolting proportions. And then there you are at home, taking an unseemly volume of pleasure in rooting for Richman to plow through 74 ounces of beef in one sitting.

The best show on the Travel Channel—one of the best shows on American television—is Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, hosted by the Kitchen Confidential author and occasional Top Chef judge. Despite his innate magnetism and cultivated glamour, Bourdain functions less as the star of the show than as its narrator, a deft raconteur with a Romantic disposition.

Visiting the chef Marco Pierre White in rural England, Bourdain strolls through the woods like Wordsworth in the Lake District, venturing that White, in leaving London for the country, is “heading home to a childhood he never quite had.” Likewise, a trip to the New Jersey emerges as a search for self. Because Bourdain is frank and casual, his lyricism never goes gooey or pretentious. Instead of going “off the beaten path,” he beats his own, which often intersects with an authentic story of a place (or as authentic a story as 44 minutes of commercial television permit). In an episode devoted to Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Detroit, he asks: “These cities were losers in the last round of free-market roulette. What happens how?” And after touring those cities with The Wire’s Snoop Pearson and various other regular and irregular people, he uneasily concludes that the new version of the American Dream has to do with gaining a measure of fame by appearing on television. He is a travel-show host willing to entertain the idea that you should take a mental journey far, far away from your TV set.