A funny thing happened to the travel show genre in the years since the late Anthony Bourdain shot to stardom with his thoughtful, meditative ruminations on all the far-flung places he visited around the world.
Travel shows got, well, funny.
We all have our preferences, of course, and these days I’ve found myself drawn to a new and lighthearted crop of travel shows, generally all helmed by curmudgeons, fussbudgets, and too-anxious souls reluctant to leave the creature comforts of home. According to AAA, this Memorial Day weekend will see more than 42 million Americans get on a plane — up 11% from last year. Accordingly, with travel on our minds, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to recommend a few of the newest travel shows available to stream that I can’t get enough of.
The Reluctant Traveler (Apple TV+)
We’ll start with Apple’s Eugene Levy-helmed travelogue, which the iPhone maker’s streaming service just renewed for a second season — and which also pleasantly surprised me.
One of the things that made me a little skeptical at first is the fact that Levy is helming the action here all by himself. He’s so great with an ensemble and has such a droll sense of humor — mugging for the camera at one point, for example, “I’m in the Arctic Circle, and the big question for me is, ‘Why?’” — that you almost instinctively look around for his longtime comedic partner, Catherine O’Hara.
The surprise, for me, was watching Levy’s defenses fall away, and this travel show host who’s essentially your crotchety uncle learns in real time to appreciate the weirdness and wonder of the wider world. He learns to approach travel with a take-it-slow mindset — even though, at the same time, the host remains refreshingly Eugene. He grumbles, hems, and haws, for example, when he’s pushed to traverse a suspended bridge in a Costa Rican jungle, and he laughs with childlike delight when he sees the luxurious hotel room that greets him in the Maldives.
Needless to say, I can’t wait for Season 2.
Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss (Peacock)
Peacock, meanwhile, has just debuted a similar kind of travel show starring former Office funnyman Rainn Wilson — and which, again, speaks to my point above about moving away from Bourdain-ish kinds of adventurous and narrative-driven travel shows.
Wilson is another host along the lines of Levy who’s anxiety-ridden and needs to be prodded out of his comfort zone. And so, in Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss, off he goes. To locales like Iceland, Bulgaria, and Ghana, taking a closer look at both happy and unhappy societies, in what Peacock describes as a “profound, humorous, and experiential way that unpacks the science of happiness.”
Narrates Wilson at one point: “I grew up as a big-headed baby in Seattle. Eventually, I landed in Los Angeles as assistant to the regional manager. Yet, for all my success, you think I’d be happier. Unlike so many others, I struggle to find true joy … happiness is out there, hiding in some of the places you’d least expect. What I want to know is … which places?”
Travels with My Father (Netflix)
Last but not least, comedian and actor Jack Whitehall is nominally the star of Netflix’s Travels with My Father. But it’s his cranky, stiff-upper-lip, and elderly father Michael Whitehall who’s accustomed to the finer things in life who really makes this show memorable.
The gimmick is that his son, Jack, ostensibly wants to spend the time with his father that he never got to while growing up — but, in the process, he decides to make it anything but easy, dragging his father to whatever locale the younger Whitehall can think of that will put the old man in a sour mood. It serves to make the show a fun, lighthearted binge. And, of course, the elder Whitehall eventually comes out of his shell. But only after everyone has expended considerable energy prodding him to do so.
At one point, the old man sneers to the camera, when the series eventually makes its way to Australia: “Australia is the country that has given us Mel Gibson, boxed wine, and the didgeri-f*****g-doo. Why?”
Five seasons of Travels with My Father are currently available to enjoy on the streaming giant.