Anthony Bourdain Moving to CNN, But Will It Make Him Boring?

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Food writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain will be leaving the Travel Channel, where he has done his award winning show No Reservations for eight seasons, for CNN starting next year.

Bourdain announced the move on his twitter yesterday and the news was confirmed with statements by CNN Worldwide executive vp and managing editor Mark Whitaker to The Hollywood Reporter

The good news for fans of Bourdain and his two Travel Channel Shows, No Reservations and The Layover, (such as myself) is that Bourdain is bringing with him Zero Point Zero, the same production company that produced both Travel Channel shows. ZPZ’s trademark gorgeous cinematography and editing gave both shows a lush, cinematic look that made them unlike any other non-fiction programs on television and they’ve won multiple Emmy awards in these categories. So, one hopes that at least the look of No Reservations/The Layover will be preserved in the new Bourdain show on CNN.

In a certain way the move makes sense. Though The Travel Channel was a good home for Bourdain and Zero Point Zero in that the network seemed to give them something close to absolute creative freedom, in many ways it was an odd fit. Most of the rest of the network’s programming is nothing like No Reservations. A lot of it seems to consist of those shows where frat boys run around freaked out by imagined ghost flatulence. (Who watches those shows anyway?)

Over the eight seasons that Bourdain has been on the network the only show remotely complimentary to No Reservations in tone or content The Travel Channel has managed to develop is Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.  And, while CNN continues to get abysmal ratings, Bourdain may be attracted by the news network’s greater ability to get him into difficult or war-torn foreign locales. This is the reasoning he references in his tweet, “Congo? Libya? Finally?” and is echoed in Whitaker’s statements to The Hollywood Reporter: “I think he’s been a little bit frustrated,” Whitaker told The Reporter. “He’s gone to a lot of places at the Travel Channel but there are some places that he hasn’t been able to go.”

However, a lot of those of us who are huge fans of Bourdain/No Reservations/The Layover worry that the independent, gonzo spirit of those shows won’t survive the transition to CNN, a temperamentally conservative network that struggles to produce any kind of programming other than pundit roundtables. This point of view is best expressed by the great internet ranter Drew Magary in this Gawker post:

The problem is that this is CNN, and CNN is firmly committed to boring Americans to fucking DEATH. God only knows if they’ll allow Bourdain to drink absinthe on camera, or shoot a pig in backwater Louisiana, or any of the other naughty things that make him a compelling TV personality. And while I salute Bourdain’s attempts to infuse real journalism into No Reservations—like the entire Mozambique episode, which was really good—most of the time I just want to watch the fucker eat. If this CNN deal results in less eating and more time hanging out with Sean Penn in Haiti, I dunno if that’s a welcome development. Sean Penn is a penis.

I’m also alarmed that Bourdain will appear on other CNN programs. Have you SEEN other CNN programs? They’re fucking horrible. Nothing good can come from Bourdain appearing onPiers Morgan Tonight for 20 minutes a week.

The sucking power of CNN is such that it’s far more likely that CNN will ruin Bourdain than Bourdain will save the network from stagnation. I hope that isn’t the case. I hope he’s still allowed to be the same profane, sleazy, and sometimes annoying person that he’s always been, because that is what makes his television so goddamn worth watching. If this ends with him in suspenders lobbing softball questions at Gloria fucking Allred, I’ll fly to Atlanta and choke someone with a marrow bone.

I mostly agree.  Bourdain’s desire to do more “serious journalism” from disaster and war torn locations is laudable and has resulted in some great episodes such as the Mozambique ep that Magary references above and the Emmy-nominated 2006 episode in which Bourdain and Zero Point Zero traveled to Beirut with the intention of doing a more typical show about the local food scene and ended up in the middle of the war between Hezbollah and Israel.

However, it’s often the more seemingly pointless episodes that don’t take place in a current hot spot in the news that result in some of the best television. I’m thinking for example of one of the most recently aired No Reservations episodes on The Travel Channel, “Finland”. There’s no possible hard news justification for going to Finland. In fact, Bourdain only went there because there was a facebook campaign to get him to visit the country, but it resulted in one of the darkest, most surreal hours of television I’ve ever seen.

In an early scene Bourdain goes to a Finnish sauna where the custom is to indulge in the medically dubious practice of having a bunch of pin pricks made in your back (in not very sanitary looking conditions) and then having a bunch of your supposedly “bad blood” sucked out.  As is Bourdain’s custom he participated in the local ritual and the camera very graphically showed the incisions being made and the blood drained out.

Beyond probably not bankrolling a Finland episode for no real reason to begin with, would CNN allow Bourdain to indulge in such textbook gonzo (i.e. participatory) journalism? Or would concern for their viewers sensitivities (the scene was pretty gross and disturbing) and the safety of their insured on camera personality mean we won’t get to see this kind of singular insanity from Bourdain anymore? If so, television will be poorer for it.

Is CNN Going to Ruin Anthony Bourdain? [Gawker]

Anthony Bourdain Exits Travel Channel for CNN [The Hollywood Reporter]

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