The exemplary journalism Anthony Bourdain delivers in his CNN series Parts Unknown may not make the headlines quite like his takedown of pumpkin spice lattes does, but it does rack up Emmys — specifically four consecutive wins for Outstanding Informational Series or Special.
From his much-publicized sit-down in Hanoi with President Barack Obama in the season 8 premiere to a fascist-themed tour of Rome, the traveler and foodie mixes art and politics in both the locales the show visits and the way the episodes are constructed.
“We’re pushing ourselves to outdo what we did last week,” Bourdain told Rotten Tomatoes. Over the past seven seasons, the show has been under bomb fire in Beirut, security breaches in Libya, and threatened with imprisonment in the “not so Democratic Republic” of Congo. This season alone will take viewers to four continents and six countries, all of which seem hand-picked to reflect the current world climate.
But can anything top sitting down with Obama at a casual noodle joint in Vietnam? Bourdain said he was surprised at how low key the President was during their brief time together. The day after their meal, the President and Bourdain spent some time traveling near Hanoi.
“We met at a working-class area…on the outskirts of Hanoi…in a driving rainstorm under a hunk of corrugated tin, basically like a little stand where there was an old woman sort of dozing at her stand where she sold gum and cigarettes. She had no idea, I mean no clue that the President of the United States was going to pull up and join me,” Bourdain recalls of filming the first episode of the season. “I think what shocked me was how at ease he was at the time, how comfortable he was. I think he was happy to be in Vietnam as a state visit but also to just be able to sit down and eat some noodles and drink a beer.”
POTUS — he’s just like us…if we hopped on Air Force One and ate noodles with Anthony Bourdain.
The Rome show — the last of the season — will air after we know the outcome of this year’s presidential election, but the political overtones may have influenced the choices of the Parts Unknown team, which chose to highlight the influence of 20th century fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
— Parts Unknown (@PartsUnknownCNN) July 27, 2016
“We shot nothing that wasn’t filmed during the Mussolini era and the post-fascist era. It’s all sort of modern Rome — the Rome most Romans live in actually. I thought it was a good time to show Mussolini and his works,” Bourdain said of his personal favorite episode of the upcoming season.
How the Rome episode was shot makes it stand apart, Bourdain said.
“We watch a lot of films for inspiration, and we take our cues from those, the cinematography that we like.” For Rome, he added “we were looking at The Conformist and the early work of [Italian cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro.”
The use of film themes plays a role throughout the new season, Bourdain said, citing Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville for that city’s spotlight and Wang Kar-wai’s Happy Together as an inspiration for the cinematography and the lighting in the Buenos Aires episode.
— Parts Unknown (@PartsUnknownCNN) September 13, 2016
Many of the countries Bourdain visits this season might be interpreted as repeats — it’s his fourth trip to Vietnam and the third to Japan. But with these multiple trips, Bourdain says he gets a chance to see old friends and observe how places have changed.
In China, he recalled, “Chengdu has changed tremendously…I mean there are just buildings, hundreds of thousands of new apartments as far as the eye can see, cranes and new buildings, luxury car dealers everywhere. Just the smell of money.”
And also, unexpectedly perhaps, Los Angeles: “Some places, like Los Angeles, we’re going to look for a completely new angle and completely new and different group of people.”
In Japan, the show will follow superstar New York chef Masa Takayama’s journey from a “dead end” fishing community to Tokyo and then New York.
And expect some typical Bourdain hazing as a side dish to the politics this season. He took his friend, Chef Eric Ripert, to China. Ripert was “very apprehensive and was in no way prepared for the level of heat in Sichuanese food — or the amount of drinking he would be required to do in a formal banquet situation with the Chinese.”
Antics surely ensue.
Season 8 of Parts Unknown premieres on CNN Sunday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. ET/PT