The travel documentary show has become very popular in the last 10 years. From the rise of niche cable networks, to well-funded Youtube channels, there are a lot of avenues that explore specific destinations all over the world. When I’m taking a trip I head right to the internet (or my cable box) to get a better view of my destination. Being able to see where you’re going is huge and has changed the game for tourists. We live in a world where the unknown can be frightening and can keep us from taking risks when we travel. Travel documentaries attempt to take some of the guess work out of traveling by giving us a clear view of what we can expect to see when we take a trip outside of our local bubbles.
These shows provide a look at their destinations through the lens of the host. Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” explores independently owned restaurants all over the United Sates through the eyes of a Northern California “dude-bro” who is overly enthusiastic about decadent food. Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations” have its host boasting access and connections no ordinary traveler has. When I watch Bourdain’s show it’s like he’s telling me that I suck at traveling, that if only I was as smart and connected as he is I could maybe have a satisfactory trip. I must say, I like Bourdain and his shows. They are entertaining and give access to spaces I would have never dreamed of finding, but he does a fantastic job of operating in a way that he feels is the “right” way to travel. If I go to Hong Kong and I don’t go to a specific dim sum restaurant at a specific hidden market, my trip should be considered a failure.
In comes “Hidden America” from Seeso, an on-demand video service accessible through a number of streaming outlets. “Hidden America” not only parodies the hosts from travel documentaries, but also the topics covered on these shows. Jonah Ray is a host willing to poke fun at everything from himself, to the cities he visits and the stereotypes that emerge from these destinations. Everything adds up to create a fantastic parody of travel documentaries.
The show follows Ray as he navigates through some of America’s most popular cities. From Boston to Seattle to Austin to Los Angeles, Ray examines what makes these cities unique and elevates these traits to grand comedic heights. While exploring the streets of Seattle Ray finds a café dedicated to the sitcom Fraiser, which was set in Seattle. As you can imagine, every dish in the restaurant is a combination of tossed salad and scrambled eggs. In Austin, he follows a militant proponent of the “keep Austin weird” movement who takes his weirdness so seriously that he has his own militia of “weirdos” that drive around town making sure everybody is as weird than them, or else they’ll get kidnapped and driven outside the “weird zone” of town.
Both of these encounters have Ray interacting with caricatures played excellently by veteran comedic actors that fully embrace their roles. Joel Murray (Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men) is an artisan hot dog vendor in Chicago, the actor’s hometown. John Ennis (Mr. Show) plays the aggressive Austin weirdo. While obviously comedic, these characters feel authentic. There’s a chance you could run into a person that’s only a few degrees away from these characters when you’re in Austin or Chicago.
Most travel hosts come off as narcissistic when you watch their programs. We should be so lucky to join them as they walk through the streets of Rome, or shuck and eat fresh oysters in New Orleans. Jonah Ray takes that narcissism often seen in these travel hosts and adds a fair amount of self-deprecating narcissism to his on screen persona. When he is in Seattle, Ray goes to the Experience Music Project where he reminisces about his own band from adolescence. This inspires him to make his own record that he takes to the Seattle based SubPop records where he hilariously solicits the song to the company’s head of A&R. Jonah tries to explore his family history in Boston, only to find that his ancestors were some of the worst people of their time, capable of burning witches and throwing babies in the Boston Harbor.
I would recommend this show to any fan of travel documentaries as a breath of fresh air from the current crop of shows that seem to overlap when they cover the same destination. Yes, you’re going to see Pike’s Place and Griffith Park when you go to Seattle and Los Angeles, but “Hidden America” provides a satiric representation of what you see of them elsewhere on TV. The goal of a travel show is often to sell a destination as a magical place that’s waiting for you to visit. Humans aren’t perfect, and in fact they can be downright annoying when they talk about how great it is to live in their city. “Hidden America” succeeds in skewering these attitudes and ideas in a way that isn’t malicious or negative, but instead is authentic and funny.
Authored by - James Patrick Gale