I still remember the first time I traveled abroad, and the feeling I had emerging from the Paris-Nord train station to behold one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It made me feel alien and bracingly helpless. I was an outsider. That was the whole point of my being there. That decentered feeling never really went away, neither on that trip nor on later ones. I wouldn’t want it to.
Celebrity travel shows tend to evoke something close to the opposite of that feeling. This is not to say that you can’t learn anything from them. It’s just that the celebrity at the center will generally steal the spotlight from the locale itself. Levy, interestingly enough, seems to exhibit some self-awareness about this phenomenon; per his show’s premise, he seems, at times, to progress from fear of travel to an embrace of travel’s helplessness. In southern Utah, he spends time with his guide in the quiet of night, discussing the stars and the spirituality of the desert. It’s a striking contrast to your typical celebrity fare, in that it seems to capture Levy giving himself over to the unfamiliar in a strikingly vulnerable way.
But it’s fleeting. The show has Levy spending a lot of time at luxury hotels, where fame affords him deferential treatment. Earlier in the Utah episode, he spends breakfast chatting with a chef (who is making one very elevated pancake) about whether he’s ever cooked for Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Much of the series revolves around this kind of celebrity-centric riffing. The show’s entire premise, after all, revolves around Levy’s own experiences and hang-ups, not the curiosities of a viewer or a would-be traveler. Offered “crocodile schnitzel” at Kruger National Park in South Africa, Levy tells his guide, “I’m going to enjoy watching you eat that,” and quips that he’ll just take a vodka-tonic. In Lisbon, his guide tells him the Portuguese people like to explore the world, and asks if Levy does, too. The actor says that “adventure is my middle name,” and that world exploration is “in my nature,” but he’s then seen confessing his deceit to the camera: “That’s where acting comes in. You know, when you can hide ineptitude on a scale like that, give me an Oscar.” He is traveling as a character in his own travel series, all while ostensibly trying to break free from that character’s limitations and experience new places — which he can never quite do, because the show is ultimately about the character, not the places.
Travel stories have often benefited from a guide, from Matsuo Bashō’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” in the 17th century to Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” or Pico Iyer’s “The Lady and the Monk” in the 20th to Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” in the 21st. (Bourdain became a celebrity, but he had a curiosity and humility, an authenticity in his travels that could make him feel like he wasn’t.) These figures serve as proxies and narrators and cultural synthesizers, both standing in for us and offering us their impressions. When we come to trust them, it’s often precisely because they know how to step out of the way and help us engage with the places they’re exploring. The same goes for any other topic. We know names like “Julia Child” and “Bob Ross” because of how compellingly those people served their subjects, not because of their pre-existing star power. And, I suppose, because nobody at the time thought to develop “Learning to Paint With Mr. T.”
I’m inclined to say the ideal travel show would merely be a video montage with someone reading a guidebook over it. The less narrative basis, the better. “Rick Steves’ Europe” and “Big City, Little Budget,” with Oneika Raymond, may be two series that come closest to that ideal, in that they’re basically video guidebooks. The hosts subordinate themselves to the places they visit. They aim to show people why to travel, and what it’s like — not to entertain them along the way.