‘Parts Unknown’ Producer Sandra Zweig on Anthony Bourdain’s TV Legacy
The 12th and final season of Parts Unknown comes to an end Sunday night with an episode looking back on the Lower East Side of late host Anthony Bourdain’s youth. It premiered in 2013 as a follow-up to Bourdain’s Travel Channel series No Reservations, expanding on the food and travel concept to tell more political and human stories. The show went places other travel shows typically wouldn’t, such as Libya, Tanzania, Georgia (the country, not the state), and, closer to home, the Mississippi Delta. Bourdain aimed to learn not only about the peoples of far-off destinations, but also those Americans who hold a different worldview than his own, such as he did during an episode shot in West Virginia.
“I’ve been to a few places where they do have a wall,” Bourdain said near the United States-Mexico border in a Season 12 episode filmed in West Texas. “Few things are uglier in the entire world, of all the places I’ve seen.” This statement seems to depict how he saw the world. Through his show, he wanted to break down the things that separated different cultures and bring the world closer together.
One of the people who went along for the ride with Bourdain was Sandra Zweig, an executive producer for the final two seasons of No Reservations and all 12 seasons of Parts Unknown. In a telephone conversation with Eater, Zweig discussed how Parts Unknown evolved, how Bourdain evolved, and more. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
When you started working on No Reservations, did you try to do anything different with the show to take it in a new direction?
Sandra Zweig: I think there was a progression happening about continuing to push to do more interesting, more challenging content, more interesting locations; to do things that were less maybe strictly food-based, which is what Travel Channel wanted. They definitely wanted a traveling food show. That was really what made the timing of the move to CNN perfect, and it really allowed the show to be its fullest version of itself and allowed Tony to do those things that maybe he could not do at Travel Channel.
We couldn’t have asked for better collaborators than CNN. They really embraced our creative ideas and crazy ideas and pretty much everything.
Had Tony been wanting to do a show like Parts Unknown for a while, or was it an idea that evolved over time?
He wanted to. There are locations, like the Congo, that he wanted to go to that were very difficult to do with Travel Channel because they didn’t really have any support system for that. CNN has been everywhere in the world, and they don’t flinch at that sort of risky location. So it really just allowed us to think about bigger issues and to do shows that didn’t center around food. That’s really what Tony wanted to do.
How did that transition happen? Were any networks other than Travel Channel and CNN considered?
No, CNN approached Tony. That was really how that happened. The move was made kind of at the point where we would have been signing a new contract with Travel Channel. So CNN, their timing was perfect, and Tony was interested in making the change.
Did the crew ever think Parts Unknown would be winning Emmys and getting so much critical acclaim?
Well, no. It’s nice to win an Emmy. It’s nice to be recognized. It’s nice to have the show be so well thought of. I don’t think that was the goal. But, I also think when Tony died, it was amazing to see the impact that he and the show had because at that time, I think we were all somewhat surprised by the outpouring of commentary. People from different walks of life, diverse backgrounds writing things about how they were impacted by the show. I think we were so caught up in that not being our perspective.
We were just trying to do things that we were proud of and that Tony wanted to do. [Zero Point Zero Productions co-founder Lydia Tenaglia] always says it was sort of a very selfish show for Tony because he did things that he wanted to do. Along the way, other people seemed to like what was happening.
What was the number one goal of the show?
It was just about every show being its own. Every show was unique. Tony would always say, “If people liked last week’s show, that’s great, but next week’s show is going to be completely different.” He really wanted to try and make every show stand alone, whether that was the way it looked visually or the storytelling, that was the goal, really, just to keep pushing to make shows different and better.
Do you have any episodes that you would call out as favorites or that you’re just particularly proud of?
The Iran show was one of my favorites. It took a lot of work to get into Iran, and I think that we were able to show the perspective of the people who lived there, taken outside of the politics of it. So it was really worth it. It took over a year to get the permissions and to go in there. I think the crew did an amazing job.
Was there any pushback from the U.S. government?
No, not really. What’s funny is that around the same time, we were also getting into Cuba. At the time, in both of those places, there were U.S. sanctions, so you had to get a special license to do business there. Cuba was actually more challenging, I think because there’s so much baggage associated with Cuba. But, then we didn’t really have any pushback. It’s just a very time-consuming process, and there’s a lot you have to work with, particular lawyers who are familiar with that. It just takes a long, long time.
You mentioned that Parts Unknown is a different show than what No Reservations was. Would you say that Parts Unknown evolved over time in its own way?
I think it absolutely changed. I think one of the things that changed from No Reservations to Parts Unknown was Tony’s level of engagement in the show. I think he was a little bit over Travel Channel, so when we moved to CNN, he really became more and more engaged in the particulars of every episode. I think his ambitions grew as we accomplished more things with CNN. I think that he had ambitions of doing other things. Sometimes it was about exploring a certain visual style and sometimes it was about a location.
I’d say more and more it was also about almost removing himself from it, kind of his being more of an observer. He always used to say ”less me, more be,” which meant it’s really about listening to the other people tell that story. I think that as Parts Unknown went from the beginning toward the end, it became more and more about him as the observer and really making sure that we as the team understood that was the priority.
Was he pretty conscious of the idea of a white man going into different cultures and the result being something that is just seen through his eyes?
Yes, absolutely. We talked about that at some locations more than others, but I think that he was very well aware that he needed to be talking to people, that it was their story. It was theirs. He was asking the questions, but he was not the authority. They knew more than he did.
That was something, as we went through in edit, that he would really emphasize in situations. If there was too much of him talking in a scene, he would always want us to pull back on that and let the other person speak.
I’m sure finishing this last season was incredibly difficult. How was the process of putting this season together without Tony different?
First of all, I don’t think there was any doubt from any of us that we wanted to complete the shows. We felt that was the right thing to do. Tony was incredibly proud of the work that was being done, and I think it would have been really unfortunate to not have people see that. So that decision was very quick and CNN fully supported that decision. Then it was really about: How do we approach each of these locations and tell that story without his voice?
Each show is so different that in each one, it required different things. In the Lower East Side episode for example, in some ways that was a little bit easier because it was largely these interviews with these iconic people that Tony had wanted to meet from a particular time of the Lower East Side. So as long as you gave a brief introduction of those people, which we did graphically, then the conversations stood more or less on their own and they reflected that period. So each one was just a little bit different. Indonesia, for example, although Tony hadn’t written any narration for that, the director of that show, who’s worked with Tony for probably 15 years, had remembered a couple of lines that were recorded for another episode three years ago and found those to use at the end of the episode.
The one thing I would say is that everyone worked incredibly hard to make these shows as strong as they could be, and I’m amazed that everyone did a great job.
On a personal level, what was it like to work on these episodes and watch them?
Hard in some ways, with every episode. I think the directors, as much as it was difficult, I think doing the work gave them some satisfaction that they were doing something that he would have wanted, that he would have been proud of. So I think that was a good thing, but at the same time I think for all of us working with the material and watching it over and over again, it was difficult. The Kenya episode, every time I watched the end of that show, I cried. It happens with a number of shows, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Do you think that how Tony saw the world changed at all over the course of shooting the series?
Yes. I would say yes, but I think it just deepened. When I came on, he had already traveled so much that I think there were basic principles that he lived by and worked by that were ingrained at that point. But I do think that he became more openly — I don’t want to say political, but invested in what was happening in a political way and spoke maybe more about that. Again, that may have been partly the transition to CNN versus No Reservations.
Did the election of Donald Trump make him want to lean further into what he was already doing?
Obviously he had his point of view, but I think the thing that he also wanted to do was not inject his opinion solely on the audience. I think it was clear where he stood. The West Virginia episode, for example, it still really is about him wanting to understand what these people from this part of the country see Donald Trump doing for them and to understand why, in a very working-class state, a three-times-married billionaire would appeal to them. I think that came from curiosity and trying to understand where the country was going.
Do you think that episode changed his view of Trump or of Trump voters or of America at all?
Well, he was a pretty open guy, so I don’t think it changed his view of Trump voters necessarily, because I think he knew there was something underneath. I’d say Trump voters are not a monolithic group, either. I don’t think it changed his view of Trump at all, but I think he just wanted to be open to hearing the other perspective and understand why.
What do you hope that the lasting legacy of this show will be?
I hope that they will remember that Tony’s goal was really to open up the world to people and to lessen people’s fear of the other or the unknown. I think that’s the legacy. I think he did that, and I think he allowed people to see and go to places that they may never go to, and at least that gives them a little bit more insight into another culture or something outside of their own world, maybe to walk in somebody else’s shoes for just a few minutes and see what that is like.
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