Anthony Bourdain might just have the best job in the world — traveling the planet in search of great food.
Past seasons of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” have seen our host explore sex culture in Japan and visit a frozen-in-time mansion in India, as well as visit places right here in the United States, like Los Angeles and Detroit, as a sort of introspective look on his culinary roots. The show follows Bourdain, led by local chefs and residents, as he eats his way through the culture of each destination, peeling back the layers until he — and by extension, we — understands what it really means to live there. The series lies somewhere between a food and a travel show, providing gorgeous montages of each dish about to be devoured (while Bourdain describes the food in his attempt at that week’s accent) as well as informative discussion with the guides about local politics and culture.
The premiere of season four begins in Shanghai, China and Bourdain investigates the incredible changes the megacity has undergone in such a short amount of time. To take him around this new metropolis, Bourdain chose members of the city’s “nouveau-riche,” a newly born class of residents who benefited greatly from the city’s rapid growth. With so much money, these elites can splurge on overblown, almost comical displays of wealth. One of Bourdain’s guides takes him to the newly renovated Bund district, which overlooks the Huangpu River and is home to many upscale restaurants, bars and western clothing stores, to enjoy a tray of oysters and champagne. But enjoying oysters and champagne separately isn’t enough. To make sure not a moment of pleasure is wasted, the millionaires replace the water in the oyster shells with champagne.
Unfortunately, the choice of guides hurts the episode. They all come off as either boring, pretentious or both — a serious letdown, as part of what makes the show so captivating are the passionate guides. The show is at its best and provides an enticing portrayal of the location when the local hosts are genuinely excited about leading Bourdain to the places they love to enjoy the food and experience the culture of which they are proud. The issue in this case is the choice of topic: the newly formed society in Shanghai. By narrowing the pool of guides to one sect of Chinese culture, the show only presents a one-side view of Shanghai, a move which is as disappointing as it is dull.
For example, later in the episode Bourdain meets a Chinese “hacker” who is part of the new generation that grew up with the boom, and for whom the ultra-modern is commonplace. This guide is especially uninteresting as he has nothing much to offer but a few offhand remarks about the food they are eating. They then decide to crash a Chinese wedding and drink their way to the end of the episode. It felt a bit like Bourdain was taking him around, trying his best to salvage the episode with his usual dry and sarcastic humor.
Hopefully this is but a momentary blip in the usual quality of the series, which still entertains throughout with daring cinematography. The series is known for its use of interesting filming techniques, a skill which was even more central to this episode. Cameras attached to shot glasses and editing inspired by modern Chinese filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai (“Chungking Express” (1994), “The Grandmaster” (2013)) made up for the lackluster discussions. The season promises many more adventures in faraway places, such as Iran and Paraguay, as well as some very close to Bourdain’s heart, like the Bronx and Massachusetts. It is unfortunate “Anthony Bourdain” began the season on a low point, as there are bound to be new viewers tuning in for the first time only to be disenchanted. For committed fans, however, this episode will simply be the one they skip over when browsing for an episode to watch again.