Travel shows are the only thing I watch for fun these days.
Many factors have led to this choice, with the most obvious being our collective inability to travel anywhere during this pandemic. But other contributing factors certainly include the logistical aspect of most good shows halting production (and not returning this fall) or the primal need to zone out with the continuing collapse of this country.
Bleak times make for a desire to vicariously experience the greatness of somewhere else.
Most of my travel-watching has consisted of old Anthony Bourdain episodes from his various shows as well as YouTube upstarts, such as Johnny Harris, who got their footage before the shutdown.
But as a perennial Netflix watcher, I figured I’d also see what the subscription service has to offer.
As with many travel show projects of the past, Netflix’s offerings feature diverse settings but suffer from a lack of diverse hosts. Unfortunately, most of the list below features white men explaining cultures across the globe ― and I left out some recent white-man-explains-the-world Netflix shows by Zac Efron and Paul Hollywood.
In a vacuum, each of these shows is worth watching, but as a whole, it’s not an adequately diverse collection from Netflix for a subject that demands nuance and sensitivity. Hopefully, Netflix works on remedying this if we ever reach a post-pandemic time.
For now, the list below offers a few different and entertaining glimpses at the globe for your vicarious viewing pleasure. If you’re getting increasingly restless on your couch like me, give these a shot.
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“Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father” (Netflix Original)
Premise: The laid-back comedian Jack Whitehall travels the globe with (as you can guess from the title) his father, who has an uptight attitude and a penchant for fine clothing. While the two have a stark contrast in personalities that causes an inherent humor, the father is still adept at making jokes like his son.
Runtime: 15 episodes of roughly 30 or 60 minutes
“Street Food” (Netflix Original)
Premise: The creators of “Chef’s Table,” a show that glorifies world-class chefs and bakers through profiles and cinematic shots of their creations, does the same treatment to “street food” in Latin America and Asia. This type of food often gets celebrated in passing inside larger travel shows like Anthony Bourdain’s work, but “Street Food” spends much more time with these undecorated chefs to understand the cuisine.
Runtime: 15 episodes of roughly 30 minutes over the two versions
“Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner” (Netflix Original)
Premise: Chef David Chang visits various cities with different celebrities such as Seth Rogen and Chrissy Teigen. The makeshift duo plays tourist while Chang tries his best to interview the celeb guest and maintain a fun, buddy-hangout vibe.
Runtime: Four episodes of roughly 45 minutes
“Conan Without Borders”
Premise: Conan O’Brien does field reports from different countries, blending the mechanics of his late-night show with a more traditional travelogue. O’Brien tackles political issues in these episodes, but of course makes sure to prioritize the humor.
Runtime: Six episodes of roughly 40 minutes
“Dark Tourist” (Netflix Original)
Premise: New Zealand journalist David Farrier finds bizarre and morally dubious tourist destinations across the globe. This includes witnessing a ritual by some “real” vampires, having a former drug lord hitman walk him through past exploits and multiple “fun” tours related to John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 40 minutes
“Somebody Feed Phil” (Netflix Original)
Premise: Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” tours the world to eat different cuisines and discover the surrounding cultures. After the end of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Rosenthal won a James Beard Award for his PBS show “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having.”
Runtime: 17 episodes of roughly 50 minutes
“Restaurants on the Edge” (Netflix Original)
Premise: This follows the “experts fix a failing business” model of television more than the typical travel show format. But this show about, you guessed it, experts fixing failing restaurants at scenic locations has such beautiful scenery that it’s worth including for any vicarious exploration dreams.
Runtime: 13 episodes of roughly 45 minutes
“Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy” (Netflix Original)
Premise: Comedian Larry Charles visits professional and aspiring comedians making comedy in the most horrible of situations. This typically involves war, showing that even amid the threat of extreme violence (such as from warlords or terrorist attacks), humor is an enduring human need.
Runtime: Four episodes of roughly 60 minutes
Bonus Short Film: “National Parks Adventure”
Premise: This is just a one-off short film instead of a whole travel show, but I’m including so this list features the United States’ national parks, as I have my eye on visiting a couple of those as soon as the pandemic ends. Robert Redford narrates this film, but I’d almost recommend just watching this on mute. The visuals are stunning and top-notch, but the music choices (Jason Mraz, The Lumineers, a version of the song “Hallelujah”) are very cringey.
The film also features a bizarre narrative about three hikers who never really introduce themselves but occasionally say non sequiturs about one another. It seems like their “story” was basically cut from the movie but also kind of left in, making for a narrative that definitely doesn’t work. But the actual visuals of the parks are worth it nevertheless.