The Problem With Celebrity Travel Shows? The Celebrities. – The New York Times

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What used to be meaningfully informative programming, delivered by personable but only tangentially notable hosts, is gradually being swallowed up.

In the resplendent green of Costa Rica, a peak reaches toward the clouds. Eugene Levy gazes up at it in awe. “That’s a volcano,” his host explains, adding that it last erupted about 10 years ago. Levy looks unsettled. “I was hoping it would be more dormant,” he says. The understated delivery is classic Levy, but it feels different, less endearing, in this context. The premise of Apple TV+’s “The Reluctant Traveler” is that the celebrity actor hasn’t liked to travel in the past, but is now pushing himself out of his comfort zone with televised trips to places like Finland, Italy and Japan. With that, he joins an increasingly established subgenre: the celebrity travel show. Netflix has “Down to Earth With Zac Efron.” TBS had Conan O’Brien’s “Conan Without Borders.” CNN had “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” which was both a celebrity travel show and a celebrity food show — another thriving subgenre, with entries from Selena Gomez, Amy Schumer, Jon Favreau and Paris Hilton.
The idea behind these programs is the same as ever: You settle in and watch your host learn about new places. It’s just that, in these shows, it’s the host’s very celebrity that inevitably becomes the star around which everything revolves. Consider Levy and that Costa Rican peak: You’re offered one moment to admire a beautiful scene before the active volcano becomes the setup for celebrity quipping. The shows’ stars can rarely help drawing attention this way, whether it’s with solemn head-nodding or relentless cleverness. O’Brien, traveling in Armenia, is so shameless in his pursuit of laughs that he almost seems to embarrass his Armenian-American assistant. Stanley Tucci, eating cantucci in Florence, has to remark that “anything that ends in ‘tucci,’ I like.” The celebrity travelogue doubles as proof of just how hard it is for performers to subordinate themselves to their surroundings.
The point of featuring celebrities seems obvious enough; in a crowded TV market, a familiar host can lure people to watch a new show. The trade-off, of course, is that the format and subject matter — whether travel or food or, say, home renovation — will find itself drifting toward the formal demands of a reality show, sacrificing its capacity to inform to its host’s own shtick or charisma. The things we see must serve the narratives and characters of the stars, providing opportunities to play to or against their images, drawing out their particular moods or charms. A result is a suffocating and often superficial take on how fascinating or delicious everything is. Eventually you come to suspect that each show would feel functionally identical no matter where you sent the celebrity — that Stanley Tucci could tour America’s bowling alleys, or Zac Efron could sample Midwestern diners, or vice versa, without much changing. This is happening across the TV world: What used to be meaningfully informative programming, delivered by personable but only tangentially notable hosts, is gradually being swallowed up by celebrity.
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.
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