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October 16th at 1:54pm
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The show came out in 2018, but I've just started watching.
In The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan (BBC, HBO Max), a British comedian goes straight for the jugular of the concept of a travel show, turning leisure porn inside out by exploring a simple question: is it worth visiting countries with hideous reputations?
In providing an answer in Episode 1, however, Ranganathan manages to unite disparate camps - not around a rallying point of feel-good warmth, but around revulsion.
The travel tribe
Traditional travel shows, especially luxury shows, can bore the wanderlustful or the woke, neither of whom, for varying reasons, have a prolonged interest in gawking at white people sipping drinks on a yacht.
Most members of the contemporary travel tribe are actively engaged in the community, stay apprised of the business of travel, read travel blogs and memoirs, and have diverse opinions on overtourism, traveling like locals, and "hidden gems."
For many of them, Ranganathan's concept is at least intriguing.
Many others love a near-lethal dose of opulent escapism in their travel TV. They want the pretty, the fun, the romantic. Travel for them is mostly about getting away and being entertained - something with which almost all of us can identify.
Viewers in this group are more susceptible to disappointment in The Misadventures. The likelihood of shrugging anticlimax, or even jagged unpleasantness, is built into the premise of the show.
We don't ease into any of it.
Season One opens with an episode on Haiti, the Caribbean island known for poverty, crime, and earthquakes.
The segment... is fascinating and heartbreaking from a sociological perspective, but as a travel show, it's boring, ugly, and sad.
Ranganathan arrives in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and stays at the faded Hotel Oloffson overlooking the city. Accompanied by a local guide, he:
- Looks at a sculpture garden full of works with large penises
- Drives through the city, seeing working class people in their everyday lives
- Meets a famous local rapper in his studio
- Goes to the Iron Market to buy offerings for a voodoo ceremony
- Stops by a tailor for some badass maraschino cherry red trousers
- Enjoys a beer at an unmistakably DIY bar
- Tours the Cité Soleil slum (more on this later)
- Buys a lottery ticket
- Visits the cathedral destroyed by the 2010 earthquake
While a few of these activities may sound interesting, none of them actually is. The segment on Port-au-Prince is fascinating and heartbreaking from a sociological perspective, but as a travel program, it's boring, ugly, and sad. Ranganathan's humor and charisma bridge the many gaps and keep the episode watchable - but just barely.
A Quick Jaunt
After the intensity of the capital, Ranganathan and his guide fly to Jacmel, on the southern coast, where they check into a picturesque hotel at the water's edge. Surrounded by palm trees, they sigh in appreciation. You can almost hear our host thinking, Thank God I'm out of Port-au-Prince.
In Jacmel, the pair endure a voodoo ceremony and swim in the luminous, turquoise waters of the Bassin Bleu. Later, as the episode closes, Ranganathan chills on the beach and talks about ethical travel, and how someone may want to avoid the capital but visit Jacmel - especially if they wish to help Haitians.
The episode made a compelling case that Haiti's undertourism - at least in the capital - is wholly justified.
The likelihood of shrugging anticlimax, or even jagged unpleasantness, is built into the premise of the show.
It wasn't all bad, though. Ranganathan's leap into the Bassin Bleu had everything necessary for a brief and engaging story: nature, laughter, beautiful colors, fear, and a clean, simple resolution. One couldn't feel anything other than a contact high for our host as he plunged sixty feet into the blue water.
It was fortunate the episode ended with a dive into clear water, because after Ranganathan's tone-deaf excursion through the Cité Soleil slum, my soul needed a cleansing.
Back in Port-au-Prince, our host had hired a special guide, Ivan, for the tour. After meandering through a deteriorating concrete labyrinth, the crew visited Ivan's mother, who flatly said she disliked her home and had so for decades. We understood why. She lived in a sad, awful place surrounded by sad, awful places.
[He turns] leisure porn inside out by exploring a simple question: is it worth visiting countries with terrible reputations?
Filthy trash rivers snaked through the slum. Children ran naked. The paths and streets were made of mud and covered in garbage. The available water was opaque with chemicals. Inhabitants scowled at the camera. Our host called it "the worst poverty I've ever seen."
When the visit ended, a drone gave us a final shot of misery and pollution before Ranganathan indulged in self-assessment from the backseat of his SUV.
"I've got to be honest. I actually felt like we shouldn't really be filming there," he said. "It felt like us Westerners coming in and pointing our cameras at these people who are living in horrible conditions. It felt a little bit icky."
Only a little bit?
It was worse than icky
We could argue about those intentions - shining a light on poverty or spending money in a devastated economy - but they didn't even apply here. Ranganathan punched the viewer's ticket to a poverty freak show when he was supposed to be evaluating the merits of visiting a given country.
Does Ranganathan visit slums when he travels to New York or Paris?
What possible service to the show's mission statement did the Cité Soleil expedition serve? Does Ranganathan visit slums when he travels to New York or Paris?
Cité Soleil was a horrible turnoff to someone looking for escapist travel porn, as well as to those who have seen poverty all over the world and don't believe it should be aired on television to scratch a voyeur's itch.
With one scene, Ranganathan managed to offend the woke travel tribe and the bourgeois escapists. In these polarized times, when Team A is only right when Team B is wrong, that's impressive.
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