GET OFF MY SCREEN: Spain… on the Road Again

Note:  This is one of the rare occasions (aside from Grey’s Anatomy, Coronation Street, and Say Yes To The Dress or any of the hundreds of reality shows on TLC about weddings) when Tina and I strongly disagree about what to watch on TV.  While normally we fall perfectly into line with each other about programming (unless she’s in control of Netflix, in which case do not get me started), there are times when I simply cannot be in the same room as the stuff she’s watching; and worse, there are times when I cannot peel myself away from it, no matter how it peels away the layers of my happiness to reach the gooey, hateful heart below.  This is one such time.

There are those of you who will say that I have come late to the game on Spain… on the Road Again, a strange combination between travelogue, history lesson and cooking show that first aired on PBS in 2008.  Running 13 episodes, it documents the travels of Mario Batali and Mark Bittman (James Beard award-winner and New York Times food columnist, respectively) as well as Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Bassols (attractive people), as they journey throughout the various regions of Spain.  The shows focus on the regional history and cuisine, focusing on the most authentic and relevant foods to the local culture, emphasizing their distinctiveness and value.

It is horrible.  Why didn’t any of you warn me?

I mean, the show is beautiful in its way.  The director and cameramen deserve all due recognition for capturing the beauty of the country, the character of the architecture and the atmosphere of the individual provinces of Spain.  Plus, you know, Gwyneth Paltrow is there, and Claudia Bassols could translate Spanish for me just as long as she wants to and I wouldn’t stop her.  Mario Batali has a presence of his own, with his orange pants and neon Crocs lending more than enough personality to offset Mark Bittman’s perpetually Eeyore-esque posture.  Even their car is nice, a sweet black Mercedes convertible that looks as though it had never seen a highway mile until the show started.

How great a pitch is that, right?  A bunch of attractive, wealthy people go spinning around Spain in an awesome car, see the beautiful sights and learn about the country, and you get to tag along.  Where could you go wrong?

Everywhere.  Everything is wrong, oh God so terrible and uncomfortable and completely unaware of itself.  The show just kind of… happens, with no particular structure.  Nobody shows up in a pop-up to explain what happened previously, what’s going to happen over the hour, who’s there and who isn’t, at what stage of the journey you may have tuned in.  There’s kind of a voice over and then you’re in the car with anywhere between two and four of the show’s hosts, somewhere in Spain.

Which, you know, would be fine if it weren’t obvious that these people either weren’t friends before they went on the trip, or else are the kind of friends who are comfortable enough with each other to have clipped, disinterested conversations during the hours they spend together in a car — either way, not that entertaining.  If I wanted to experience tense, irritable dialogue and thinly-veiled barbs being thrown around, I would just close my eyes and regress to every family road trip I’ve ever gone on.

Except, my road trips were to Kingston Ontario, not the whole nation of Spain, so maybe I’d like the luxury of pretending there’s a difference.  But Spain… on the Road Again will brook you no such daydreaming, as it provides you with hours of seemingly unedited footage of the four hosts grumpily chatting in the car, idly passing time while walking around, or making small talk until dinner arrives — all of which is building momentum for the most exciting segment of all, the part where everyone is silently eating!

Oh yes, brace yourself minutes and minutes of four celebrities sucking the flesh out of langoustines and moaning pleasantly.  And even if they do pause to talk, few other than Batali have anything to offer:  Bittman radiates irritation that he’s the only one who doesn’t understand Spanish, and channels that energy into bugging the others; Bassols dives headlong into her apparently default role as translator, a subset of being The Most Spanish Person There; Paltrow is… you know, present.

I know how I sound right now, but the thing is, I also know that the show knows just how awful it is.  The clue is in the soundtrack, a Latin rock combo — complete with trumpets and Santana-style electric guitar — which literally does not stop playing at any point in the episode, at roughly equal volume to the dialogue.  It’s like there’s a ghetto blaster sitting just off-camera, that someone left tuned into the Spanish Stereotypical Soundtrack Network (“All men with long, oily hair and guitars, all day every day!”).  Whether the hosts are having aimless conversations in the car, standing awkwardly around a woman while she cleans shellfish, or competing to irritate one another over tapas, the music is there to fill the void — the gaping hole left in the program that has four people in it, and yet no actual host.

Truly, in that regard, On The Road Again is downright remarkable:  yeah, the foursome visit places and go on interesting tours, but there is never even the slightest sense that they’ve prepared for the moment.  What’s that, viewer?  You might have some questions about the cheese-making process?  Tough shit, Mark Bittman already knows about that, so instead you can watch a machine churn milk for four minutes, while the factory owner tries to fill the dead air with a monologue you can’t understand.

And all of this goes without mentioning the fact that even the stars of the show couldn’t muster the energy to spend 13 full episodes with each other — they disappear and re-appear throughout the series, jetting off to London or elsewhere to meet family and do other work.  It’s like the show is challenging you to commit more of your time to it than the actual cast did, turning what’s clearly a paid vacation for them into a job for you.

I don’t hate (yes I do) On The Road Again as much as I am simply baffled by it, this weird filmed vanity holiday that someone at PBS thought would be a great idea.  Everyone wishes they could tag along with famous people while they’re at play, but if that’s the conceit of the show, it should at least give the illusion that we’re welcome — in the vacation pictures, so to speak, rather of watching someone else’s slideshow (complete with a piped-in soundtrack) that just never seems to end.

Spain… on the Road Again is currently airing on the Omni Network in Canada, and is likely in repeats on PBS in the US.  Despite what you may think, your Mom will probably not like the DVD set, even though it was on Oprah that one time.

  • kristie

    I always secretly suspected that rich, famous people were probably boring in real life. Especially those who wear crocs. And while I do love me some Batali, I can’t forgive his shoes. And I can’t forgive anyone who massacres the food scene in Spain.

  • bruleeblog

    I agree, it’s bad. That’s probably why I didn’t reference it at all when planning my trip there.

    • Mike

      I don’t know how you could have — they explain basically nothing about where they’re going, where anything is in relation to anything else, or even where they sleep at night.

      We started watching it out of interest for our upcoming trip, and it — aside from being hilariously self-absorbed — was beyond useless.

  • kate

    Oh, I’m so glad I’m not alone in disliking this show. I saw one episode (featuring just Batali and Paltrow) and was so annoyed by them both that I just couldn’t watch another episode. And hell, I love food/cooking/travel shows — I even watch the one where they make that poor Scandinavian chef cook outside in the middle of winter and drink Acquavit to ward off the pain of hypothermia. So, you know, my tolerance is pretty high. But I could not withstand The Paltrow.