Skift Take

Parts Unknown confirmed this season that its mission goes far beyond culinary or even cultural interests. It's entertainment that reveals and comments on today's socioeconomic realities, and we're all the better for it.

The last episode of Parts Unknown‘s second season is a tribute to Detroit, a part of America that is largely unknown to many outside of headlines decrying its bankrupt businesses and corrupt leaders.

It’s a city that Anthony Bourdain unapologetically adores and unabashedly endorses. The episode was such a strong ending to the season not only because of its subject matter and Bourdain’s enthusiasm, but because it showed off the talent and signature style of ZPZ Productions’ film crew so beautifully.

The episode starts with a news reel on Detroit, which is described as the “the American city whose products have revolutionized our way of living.”

Bourdain’s tour guide through the ghost town of a city is journalist Charlie LeDuff.

LeDuff takes Bourdain and crew through what locals describes as “ruin porn”: Empty factory buildings, overgrown yards in vacant residential neighborhoods, and abandoned parks that are so intriguing visitors can’t look away.

“It’s hard to look away from the ruin. To not find beauty in the decay. Comparisons to Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, ancient Rome are inevitable. Magnificent structures representing the boundless dreams of the day left to rot,” explains Bourdain.

“Yet unlike Angkor and Leptis Magna, people still live here. We forget that.”

And Bourdain takes viewers to meet Detroit locals, whom he says he loves for their sense of humor and their resilience.

There’s the entrepreneuring couple that turned their front yard into a cookout waiting for customers. Bourdain and LeDuff devour ribs, collard greens, and mac and cheese.

There’s the underfunded, under-equipped, and overworked Squad 3 Fire Department where Bourdain helps cook pork chops, crab cakes, and Caesars salad.

Bourdain learns how to eat a classic Coney Island hot dog piled high with chili, onions, and mustard. And he marvels at the loyalty of chef Craig Liechfelt who left New York City’s restaurant scene to create pop up restaurants in Detroit. Liechfelt sources all of his food and staff from the city, and gives residents a place to meet and relax.

Bourdain also meets with local residents that took their city’s future into their own hands when their leadership failed them: The mower gang that keeps local parks maintained and an urban farm that keeps fresh produce flowing.

An America Question

Bourdain’s ultimate question is, “What does the future of Detroit look like?”

And he poises it in such a way that suggests every American viewer should care, because the future of the Detroit largely mirrors the future of the country.

Bourdain’s poses one possible future for Detroit in a Tumblr post:

One only need look at New York’s Lower East Side, or Meat District to see what’s possibly coming down the pike for Detroit when it inevitably “recovers”. What’s coming down the pike for all of us.

Empty lots and burned out buildings are bad. But are cupcake shops, galleries and artisanal baristas necessarily better?

The series finale was followed by a live discussion with Bourdain, actor Wendell Pierce, CNN anchor Don Lemon, comedian Bonnie McFarlane, chef Marcus Samuelsson, and chef Roy Choi. The panel discussed some of the most current and pressing issues raised throughout the season including gun ownership, obesity, and health.

It was one of the first times that Bourdain and the series openly acknowledged that its mission goes far beyond culinary or even cultural interests.

Parts Unknown will return for a third season next year and we already know that Brazil, Vegas, and Africa are on the map.

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Tags: anthony bourdain, cnn, detroit, parts unknown

Photo credit: Anthony Bourdain gets ready to dig into a plate of ribs, collard greens, and mac and cheese on the season finale of Parts Unknown. Parts Unknown CNN

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