TV Eye

Touched by a TV

<i>Six Feet Under</i>
Six Feet Under

"Be a traveler not a tourist."

– Anthony Bourdain, chef, writer and host of the Travel Channel's No Reservations

"You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone."

– The ghost of Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) over his sister Claire's (Lauren Ambrose) shoulder, as she takes a photo of her family before leaving home in the series finale, Six Feet Under

TV saved my life last night. All right, that's an exaggeration. But I got your attention much in the same way several images, words, and actions caught my attention when I least expected it. Last Sunday, some truths rattled to the surface, like stones in a sieve, after the finer debris had washed away.

As a measure of partial exposure, I should say that my life over the last several months has, well, sucked. A long-term relationship ended. I continue to witness the rapid decline of my once able-bodied father, assuming the mantle of decision-maker that the stable, adult child in the family bears even as it cuts into skin. I've made personal choices that were reasonable and appropriate but not without pain.

None of it has been much fun. I'm craving fun. Which is why I recorded and finally watched Anthony Bourdain's new series on the Travel Channel, No Reservations. Those familiar with Bourdain know this is another iteration of the chef/writer's previous series for the Food Network, A Cook's Tour. And Bourdain's TV series are iterations of his books (Kitchen Confidential, A Cook's Tour) recounting his ongoing obsessions with food and culture in his beloved New York City and beyond.

Compared to A Cook's Tour, No Reservations is more enjoyable. I'm not sure why, except it appears that Bourdain is more invested in this series that has taken him from his native New Jersey to Iceland, Malaysia, and, in the episode I took a personal interest in, Vietnam. Vietnam is on my list of countries to see, and Bourdain adores it – the cuisine, the people, the landscape, the experience of being in a place that is so totally unlike his beloved New York and somehow familiar because he has taken the time to find the familiar among the exotic. But there were two things that particularly struck me about this episode. One, his giddy, thumbs-up comment to the camera that his job doesn't suck, and two, his advice (used in promos for the show), to "be a traveler not a tourist."

Now, this may sound like an innocuous off-the-cuff comment luckily captured on camera, but when you've been sucked in the dervish of your own drama for a while, it takes on special meaning. You can let the tour bus of misery keep taking you on the same familiar stops, or you can finally jump off and go on your own, peeking into the places that were at once fearful and realize, hey, change is painful but it's inevitable and, in many cases, deceptively good.

Which brings me to the series finale of HBO's Six Feet Under. The series (which underwent a creative resurrection this season) should go down in history as having the least nostalgia-laden finale in TV history. The closing sequence, in which we watch Claire literally drive headfirst into her life, was juxtaposed with scenes of her family's future celebratory moments (marriages) and glimpses of each major character's death. In a different context, the series could have ended at the dining room table as the assembled family toasts the recently departed Nate, or, in traditional TV form, as Claire drives off into the sunset. But that would have been untrue to the series that has never flinched from the ultimate reality. We're all going to die. What matters is what we do in the meantime. Will we be trapped by our fear of the unknown? Bullied by fear of failure? Sucked in by the centrifugal force of poor or too-safe choices, or, as Rachel Griffith's Brenda says to David (Michael C. Hall) when he ponders why he struggled to keep the family business going when he desired other options – mindless habit?

Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but recent TV fare has taken a turn toward nihilism. (Unlike the reader who wrote in to extol the new FX series, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, wondering why I didn't mention it along with my review of Starved, the response is easy. I think it's bitter and mean.)

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that when you least expect it, messages can come from the strangest places. In my case, TV. Damn, my job doesn't suck. And neither does my life. I wonder how long it will take to save up money to travel to Hanoi?

New episodes of No Reservations air on Mondays on the Travel Channel at 9pm. Check local listings for additional air times.

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More TV Eye
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No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain, A Cook's Tour, Six Feet Under

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