Responses to the news of his death were widespread, intense, and often deeply personal in a way that was not quite like the reactions I recall to other celebrity deaths. I mean, people were heartbroken when Tom Petty died, shocked when Prince died, and deeply saddened when Robin Williams died. There have been others as well and in each case, news of the passing of famous people rattles the national consciousness. In our culture, the famous are supposed to be immortal, forever young.
So what was different or special about Anthony Bourdain? Why did reactions to his passing feel more intense, or more personal, than reactions to the passing of other celebrities? I checked out four or five episodes of his show on Netflix to see what I had been missing and why all these people who watched the show were so devastated. For one thing, “Parts Unknown” is not a cooking show, and Anthony Bourdain was not a celebrity in the sense that we usually think of them. He wasn’t an actor, or a musician or a comedian.
While I wouldn’t exactly call him an “everyman” — after all, he was an admitted recovering drug addict who had battled depression for years — he had a demeanor that was more than just appealing. He seemed open, genuine, honest, in love with life and most of all still curious about the world in a way that most people are not once they’ve spent a few years adapting to the responsibilities of adulthood and the soul-crushing repetition that life can become once you get a job, a mortgage and a family. Of course you’d love to travel to exotic places, but who has the time?
The basic concept of “Parts Unknown” is that Bourdain went to places all over the world and spent some time there immersing himself in the culture: eating the food, getting to know some of the locals, spending lots of time talking with people about their homeland and its issues, good or bad.
What made the show really special was that instead of the predictable places where tourists usually flock, Bourdain often went places that the average American would never go, or never even consider going. How many people are planning trips to Libya, or Myanmar, or Colombia, all destinations from the first season of the show?
We are living in a particular moment in American life when many millions of Americans are feeling lost and heartsick about the direction of our country. Instead of embracing other cultures, the current political climate is isolationist, even hostile, to people who are not of white European descent. We are living in a time when millions of our fellow citizens seem to be OK with our government separating children from their families and putting them in cages. We are living in a time when our nation loves its guns more than its children, because “fear of the other” has choked our national spirit and rendered us not only frightened, but paranoid, myopic, mean-spirited, and small. Is this who we are now, and what we have become?
When I watched “Parts Unknown” for the first time, I felt that part of its appeal is what Bourdain seems to embody: an openness to other people and places, a celebration of our shared humanity and a sense that in finding common ground with so many different kinds of people from so many different places that we can recapture something valuable that has been lost.
That is one reason that Bourdain’s suicide was so particularly painful for so many fans of the show. How could this man — this adventurer, this lover of life — possibly come to such a desperate and hopeless place? Even the people who knew him best probably cannot give a clear answer to that question, other than in the end, he lost his battle with depression.
Whether you call it a “disease,” “a mental illness” or a “mood disorder,” depression is a very serious, potentially deadly adversary for millions of people. Hopefully, Bourdain’s passing will be a catalyst for a serious discussion of depression. If we are not going to get serious about the gun problem, maybe we can get serious about mental health.
I also hope that more people will discover his show, “Parts Unknown.” There are things in it to celebrate — values worth fighting for, values worth living for.