Michael Palin has been doing his globe-trotting travelogue thing for 25 years, ever since he set out to recreate Jules Verne’s classic Around The World In Eighty Days for the BBC in 1989. In the years since, through follow-up series like Pole To Pole and Full Circle, Palin somehow never set foot in Brazil. (Of course, he did star in a movie called Brazil in 1985—a topic that never comes up in this series, probably because Terry Gilliam’s film had nothing to do with the country of Brazil.) With both the upcoming World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics set to draw the eyes of the world to the South American country, Palin finally takes the plunge in this four-part series.
Brazil With Michael Palin is a far more immersive experience than its predecessors, which tended to bound from location to location, only skimming the surface of some of the globe’s vaster, more diverse countries. (All of Australia and New Zealand were covered in one episode of Full Circle.) Brazil offers a deep dive, with each of its four hours devoted to a distinct region of the world’s fifth-largest country. “Out Of Africa” kicks off in northeastern Brazil near the Venezuela border, where much of the population is descended from slaves brought from Africa to work the sugar plantations. “Into Amazonia” takes viewers deep into the rain forest where indigenous tribes attempt to maintain their traditional lifestyles even as the modern world encroaches. “The Road To Rio” delves into the immense mines of Minas Gerais before mingling with the haves and have-nots of Rio De Janeiro. Finally, “The Deep South” wraps up the journey with an investigation of the European-derived communities of Brazil’s southern states.
Despite Palin’s Monty Python roots, comedy has never been the primary concern of his travel shows. It’s there, of course, if only because he can’t help himself; Palin can’t see a cow with five legs and two anuses and treat it like a solemn occasion. Still, it’s not as if his travels are set up as a series of wacky events or excuses to mock the more idiosyncratic aspects of unfamiliar cultures. Instead, gentle humor emerges through Palin’s dry asides and self-deprecating observations, as well as the contrast between his reserved, slightly awkward persona and the open, outgoing locals he encounters.
“The Road To Rio” is particularly well structured in terms of revealing a broader picture of its subject than might be expected. Instead of focusing on the nonstop beach party aspect of Rio De Janeiro, Palin and his guides place the city’s colorful glamour in the context of its unmistakable class division. They venture into the favelas, those towering slums that loom over mansions and resorts below. (As Palin notes, this is an inversion of the usual geographic dynamic that finds the rich populating the hills and literally looking down on the poor.) Several years earlier, it would have been ill advised for Palin and crew to wander into these impoverished areas, as they were largely the dominion of drug gangs. With the World Cup approaching and safety concerns mounting, the Brazilian government put a program known as “Pacification” into effect, creating a paramilitary force called BOPE (in English: Special Police Operations Battalion) to sweep the drug lords out of the favelas—or at least push them farther from the beaches. A new cable car system was installed in an effort to blur the hard dividing line between the two Rios. This transformative aspect of World Cup preparation may get overlooked in the coverage to come, but Palin and company are able to put a human face on a complex, evolving social issue without resorting to lecturing or sermonizing.
Lest that it sounds like watching Brazil is akin to eating your vegetables, rest assured there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way. Palin learns capoeira, a martial art that evolved into a dance; visits a “love room” with the host of a sex-oriented talk show and browses a colorful brochure of dildos and vibrators; and learns to cook with the irrepressible Chef Dada, “the Pelé of Brazilian cuisine.” Visually, the series benefits enormously from the geographical and multicultural diversity on display, from lush rain forests to staggering urban blight. The Iguazú Falls, the largest waterfall system in the world, is an eye-popping natural wonder, but the massive landfills of São Paulo (where garbage is a growth industry) are no less awesome to contemplate.
Brazil With Michael Palin is not without its dead spots and perfunctory segments (a few of the interview subjects, notably a young model hoping to follow in Gisele Bündchen’s footsteps, are less than scintillating), but as a whole it accomplishes what any good travelogue should: It simultaneously edifies and entices viewers to get those passports renewed. At 68 years old at the time of filming (Brazil debuted in Britain nearly two years ago), Palin may not be quite as spry as when he went around the world in 80 days, but he retains his easy, boyish grin and inquisitive nature. Here’s hoping his vagabond days aren’t yet at an end.