In his seventh world travel series for BBC Television, Monty Python alum Michael Palin and his time- and inadequate lavatory-tested crew visit the newest members of the European Union and their immediate neighbors. Along his curved way from Slovenia to Turkey to Kaliningrad to Germany with a load of stops in between, Palin has leeches applied to his chest, wears an unwieldy head wreath, pronounces words on Polish television, witnesses hairy men slathered in olive oil wrestle one another, checks out hideous Communist architecture, makes a sausage, not-quite-successfully attempts that wrist-intensive frying pan trick chefs do and hits a public bath.
Michael Palin came by my former neck of the woods in 2000 to promote the Hemingway Adventure, and seeing the lecture was, to that point in my life, one of the neat-o-est things ever. During the Q&A, he mentioned that, after completing each series, he vows to himself that he'll take no more of "these long trips," and of course he'd done the same post-Hemingway. Which was followed, two years later, by Sahara. Then Himalaya. And now New Europe. So, in other words, he'll be doing these shows all the way to the grave, though in his condition I imagine he'll live forever. That's fine by me, since Palin's Travels have long since been my favorite television of any kind; I have many memories of watching rapt at age seven as he made his way from, say, Pole to Pole, thinking, "This guy has the best job in the world!" (I didn't was unaware of Palin's beloved-comedy-troupe origins at the time — to me, he was the main guy from Ripping Yarns — though since I've never quite gotten with their material, his Python credentials are still essentially meaningless to me.)
The new series differs from its predecessors most noticeably in that Palin sticks chiefly to places more or less safely categorizable as part of the "developed world"; he never eats a can of "stewed chicken with bone" in a colonial-era dining car stalled on its tracks somewhere in the desert, for instance. He drinks from zero bowls of chewed leaves with tribeswoman saliva. He stays off dhows. Compared to where he's been, many of the New European places he visits are positively slick. This is fine by me — if I go journeying myself, it'll be to countries with U.S.-quality toilets or better — but perhaps certain hardcore fans of the Travels need to see more inconvenience.
But it's not all fun, games and a lack of Delhi Belly. From the very first, the program makes it clear that most of the states covered have only put a salami slice of temporal distance between themselves and living nightmares, whether those nightmares involve the Bosnian War, the caprice of any number of eccentric dictators, or, of course, The Big C. Communism's legacy casts an unsurprising shadow over a bunch of these nations, and its effects show up not just in their stringy economies but in the memories of everyone over the age of about forty. There's a lot of "Man, that sucked" sentiment, which I expected, since, y'know, the rise of communism was pretty much the worst thing. Not the worst ideology, not even the worst event — the worst thing. Forgive me if I come off like a cornfed, red-faced midcentury legistlator sputtering incoherently against the human wave of godless pinkos, but try to argue that I'm wrong. Know that if you pull one of those "the Soviet Union wasn't hell, it was just really dull" rationales, I will lump you with those who argue that "well, the Soviet Union wasn't real communism anyway." Not a group to be taken seriously.
Anyhow, what was kind of surprising was how young eastern Europeans would tell Palin about their parents' few fond memories of the Soviet era. "In the GDR, not everything was wrong," says one German of his parents' life, which couldn't have promised much more than a 800 square feet in a cement tower, a place on the Trabant waiting list and a jar of Spreewald pickles. They quickly clarify that they don't mean that they miss the government, but that they just miss the times they had under than government. And if you think about it, that stands to reason: alongside irony, nostalgia is one of the universe's most powerful forces. Even if you grew up under the thousand heels of a bureaucratic totalitarian monstrosity that itself was dominated by several other, even more grotesque, violent strata, you'll still be a kid, you'll still play hide-and-seek, you'll still come of age, you'll still meet those special somebodies, and thus you'll retain fond memories of those things, occur under brutal communist misrule though they may have. And you probably weren't even aware of that until later in life. So I guess it's only natural for older generations to have "fond memories of the Soviet era," unless their lives sucked for non-state-inflicted reasons too.
But what really did surprise me is what oldsters said — not guys and girls my age relaying their parents' stories, and not even those parents themselves, but actual old people around their 80s — when reflecting on their lives, the large majority of whose years were spent on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. One in particular articulated the core of what I hadn't expected: he believed that given just a few more years the Soviets could have pulled it together and, at long last, established real Communism, freedom, equality, people's democracy, dialectical materialism, grander monuments, etc. It slowly emerged over the course of the next several episodes that a lot of people, marooned in the vast wasteland of cabbage lines and stunted grayness, apparently thought Communism on its way. Did they assume all the Solzhenitsynesque nonesnse crushing them on a daily basis was just the due they had to pay to one day attain the socialist ideal? Alas, they were already living the socialist ideal, or at least the fullest possible instantiation of the socialist ideal in the material world. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
Palin's Travels have always been beautifully photographed — and the books of stills by Basil Pao are on a whole other, higher plane altogether — but New Europe looks and feels like the most polished of the bunch on several scales. It even moves more smoothly than its predecessors. If you've seen a single episode of any of Palin's Travels you know the format: Palin gets to a country, meets up with a local and gets led into some amusing and/or culturally revealing situation. Pause to think about production, and it's obvious that Palin isn't just disembarking from the boat or train or whatver, running across random fascinating, unusual people all on his lonesone and getting invited into their lives; sure, maybe some were found on the fly, but the vast, vast majority of the meetings were surely prearranged in fine-grained detail by the BBC.
And to be fair, Palin and co. aren't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. What the viewer sees is one middle-aged Englishman trotting from place to foreign place, mingling with the natives and participating in all manner of conversation, commerce and ritual. What the viewer does not see, but what couldn't very well be absent, are all the guys with the cameras, the microphones, the extra digital video cassettes or discs or drives or whatever, the director or directors, the assistant director or directors, the itinerary guy, the financial guy, the logistics guy, the grunts, the interns, the ghost of John Reith and, of course, the bond company stooge. (Let's not even go into how much luggage they all must have.) And of course, they're not just standing around shooting what Palin says and does, either: they're getting angles, coverage, multiple takes. They're on their own paddle boat while Palin's on his. They're individually micing everyone he speaks to. It sounds like a whole lot of... work.
I'm making it sound as if I've finally become fed up with the artifice of it all and am maybe about to kick Palin's Travel's to the curb, but no; I like the shows as much as ever. Maybe more. Some viewers might have a kneejerk negative reaction to slickness and orchestration, but c'mon — this is the best damn slickness and orchestration around. It's not slickness and orchestration in the name of banality; it's slickness and orchestration in the name of aesthetically awesome, information-packed entertainment. And who more appropriate than Palin to host it? The formula has been and remains near-perfect, so you won't hear me calling for a shake-up.