Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain's food and travel show on CNN, returns for season two on Sunday night. And as has been the trend with the new series, Bourdain jumps right in to some sticky material, starting the season with a trip to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
Off the bat, Bourdain is hyper-aware of the delicate nature of shooting here. In his opening monologue, he addresses the potential controversy, saying:
It's easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there's no hope, none, of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off. Maybe that's why it's taken me so long to come here. A place where even the names of ordinary things are ferociously disputed…By the end of this hour, I'll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American Imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent and worse….so here goes nothing.
See also: Anthony Bourdain Debuts Parts Unknown on CNN
And indeed, we've never seen Bourdain so careful, so stoically anxious as he is in this episode. In the home of a West Bank Jewish settler, he carefully and warily asks his hosts about anti-Arab graffiti just outside the town's limits, literal targets painted on an Arab dwelling. The host brushes it off as the work of young people who don't understand complex issues. “Why not paint over it?” Bourdain persists, not in the cocky sardonic tone we associate with this icon of foul language and various debaucheries, but as if he's verbally tiptoeing through a minefield. Which he is.
Bourdain does not look like he's having a good time — an increasingly common thing in his shows. This series, unlike much of No Reservations, is not about getting drunk and stuffing himself in exotic locations. It is about taking his huge star power and using it to put a human face on the parts of the world many of us would rather ignore. Half way into the show we've barely seen any food, save a falafel stand and a brief but undiscussed meal at a home. And when the show does get to food, it is the work of a mixed couple — an Arab husband and Jewish wife. And elsewhere, Bourdain tries gamely to perpetuate that fantasy many food-lovers have, that if people could only sit down for a meal together they might all just get along. “As a religious Jew I can't, because I'm kosher,” the man from the West Bank settlement says.
“How can I?” the Palestinian man says, reminding Bourdain that he is not allowed to move freely or enter the Jewish territories.
Instead of food we see shot after shot of smiling, playing children in refugee camps. We see Bourdain crossing past tangles of barbed wire to enter Gaza. And we see a man who admits in the first moments of the show that he is without religious faith struggle to understand all the misery these perfectly nice people are perpetrating on one another in the name of God.
It is incredibly compelling television.
Season 2 of Parts Unknown premiers this Sunday at 9 p.m. on CNN.
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