It's pretty obvious why the producers of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations chose the Panama episode to open this latest season. No Reservations is almost always a fun show, but the Panama episode contains more awesome stuff per segment than just about any episode in recent memory. You can hardly go wrong with an hour of television that features the implacable and unflappable Bourdain burning up several tons of cocaine, wandering through a jungle wilderness and entering the long-lost palace of Manuel Noriega and cracking jokes immediately after talking about how much evil the place had seen in the past. Bourdain's trip to the Panamanian hinterlands and cities is a good reminder of just why No Reservations is such a fun show and one of TV's best travelogues.

What makes No Reservations so good basically boils down to the host. Lots of shows will take you to exotic locales, but few will take you there with someone as gregarious as Bourdain. It often seems like the guy makes friends everywhere he goes, like the people he meets on the street are just potential comrades he can drag along on his latest attempt to find the world's greatest treats. Now, I'm sure that a lot of what happens on the show is planned out ahead of time, but the series gives that sense, the sense of wandering a foreign locale and just making it up as you go along.

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One of the other nice things about Bourdain and No Reservations is that the show and the man aren't afraid to head off the beaten path. Travel shows that take you all over Europe are a dime a dozen, and shows that show off the glitzy glamour of some little-visited Latin American nation are almost as common. But Bourdain is interested in visiting, say, Panama not only for the glamorous places that have been featured on other travel shows but also for the areas that might not be as beloved. He's not afraid to take the show's cameras into the country's most famous slum or to visit a Chinese restaurant there that looks rather like the Chinese restaurant the family eats in at the end of A Christmas Story. No Reservations is less a show about eating your way around the world than it is a show about all of the ways that eating your way around the world might open up your realm of experience so far as to take you down alleyways you might never have explored.

At the center of all of this is Bourdain, a man who seems pretty much at home no matter where he goes. He's someone who embraces the adventure of travel, the adventure of eating, like not being able to do either would lead to his very death. That's an exaggeration, of course, but his very nature is one of the things that makes the show work as well as it does. I love the way he just plunges forward into whatever will make for good television or enhance his trip. It's not every show that could turn the aforementioned tour of Noriega's palace - which the show says no one has stepped inside of for 20 years! - into something of a comedy sketch.

So what, then, made the Panama episode so great? I think it had something to do with Bourdain's ability to find the sorts of big travel moments that might not appear on any other travel show. For example, that whole thing with the burning cocaine - whether Bourdain lucked into it or whether the show planned it out somehow - wasn't going to show up on Rick Steves or some other show of that ilk. The sizzle and pop of the drugs as the flame quickly took hold of them was fascinating to watch, and it gave new meaning to the idea that sometimes the best reality shows are the ones that show you something you'd never see anywhere else. (Unless you're frequently burning up ton after ton of cocaine in your backyard for some reason.)

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The series also does a good job of finding a way to encapsulate the countries it visits using their food and cities. In Panama, for instance, the show figures out a way to show how the various cities in the country utilize seafood to varying results - from a savory octopus dish on the country's Eastern coast to a tuna dish at a fusion restaurant that Bourdain seems quite taken with. The series also, critically, makes all of these dishes look absolutely delicious, to the point where one is tempted to take a trip down to Panama and seek out the remote docks where Bourdain finds the fishers who unload the live crabs and lobsters that spill out all over the docks and near his feet. And, at the same time, Bourdain is utilizing this food to point out how Panama is the world's crossroads, a place where there's a substantial Chinese population, where that food mingles with Latin American influences to create a strange fusion cuisine that isn't really available elsewhere. Just as the country is a place where the world meets up, its food is a blend of influences.

Some of the stunts don't work as well as others. When Bourdain and a few Panamanian government officials go into Noriega's old house, it's mostly a bust (Bourdain compares it snarkily to the opening of Al Capone's vault in a pre-commercial bumper), no matter how much Bourdain tries to compensate with jokes or random Nativity scene lambs that appear in some of the rooms. Mostly, he and the officials are just wandering around an old, crumbling house, and it doesn't make for the kind of compelling TV that the show is famous for.

But despite that, "Panama" ends up being one of the better episodes of the show to date, mostly for how wide-ranging it all is. In addition to the Noriega house and the visit to the shellfish fishermen, Bourdain wanders into the jungle - where vicious poisonous snakes and malaria await! - and comes to a small village where he's painted with ink that will make tattoos on his skin for up to seven days. It's a great little sequence, showing the way that people who might remain far from the camera on another travel show live and reveling in their very lives. That's the best thing about No Reservations, ultimately. It gives a sense that the whole world is a place for someone like Bourdain to learn and experience and enjoy, a place that we, too, might enter had we the time and the TV budget.

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Stray observations:

  • "So far, not the blood and semen-spattered rumpus room of horrors I'd imagined."
  • OK, I just gotta ask. Can you actually show breasts at 10 p.m. on a basic cable station? Legally, I know that basic cable stations are in a very grey area, and I realize that the breasts in this case were anthropological and educational and all of that, but it still seems like the kind of thing that you just don't ever see on TV.
  • All right, guys. That looked like fun. Let's get a couple of tons of cocaine, some machetes and a match and go to town.

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