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‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’ Review: Tragedy, Joy, and a Fascinating Trip to ‘Kenya’

The Season 12 premiere, featuring W. Kamau Bell, continues to share Bourdain's mission: exploring the world through food and culture.

NAIROBI, KENYA - FEB 25: Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya on February 25, 2018. (photo by David Scott Holloway)

“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”

David Scott Holloway

There’s so much joy contained in the Season 12 premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” that it can be jarring, given the tragic circumstances of its unveiling. With host Anthony Bourdain’s suicide ensuring that these remaining installments will be the show’s last, this premiere comes with a heartbreaking edge that goes well beyond final-season blues.

However, the season premiere pays tribute to its lost host in the best way possible — by continuing to present the sort of storytelling Bourdain clearly valued so dearly, dedicated to revealing the incredible richness of the world we live in, and how much delight there can be found in exposing others to it. It’s that last element that is the key to the dynamic of “Kenya,” the show’s premiere episode, in which Bourdain takes fellow CNN employee W. Kamau Bell, the host of Emmy-winning series “United Shades of America,” to the titular nation.

While Bell’s middle name is Kenyan in origin, he’s very much a fish out of water as Bourdain’s companion through both the urban environment of the capital city of Nairobi as well as the more wild expanses of the country. The pair shop in the Kenyan equivalent of “vintage” markets, learn about the current state of LGBT lives in this country (where homosexuality is still illegal), go on a full-fledged safari through a conservancy populated by lions, rhinos, and giraffes, and hang out with some Maasai.

As per usual with this show, so much of “Kenya” is driven by interaction with the locals, letting their perspectives truly dominate the conversation as often as possible. Watching Bourdain, as well as Bell, listen intently as boxers and clothing merchants, and artists and educators, tell their stories isn’t the only reason to pay attention — but it’s a helpful tool in reminding the audience that yeah, sit up. Look alive. Learn something.

David Scott Holloway

“Kenya” genuinely puts the spotlight on Bell as opposed to Bourdain, his experience as a newcomer to a land where the name Kamau isn’t so unusual providing much of the episode’s grist. Bell legitimately seems stunned by everything he experiences, which is clearly reflected in Bourdain’s eyes — in more than one moment, even the most jaded person will enjoy seeing what it’s like to watch someone experience something new and wondrous for the first time.

A particularly fun sequence features Bell and Bourdain whizzing around on matatus. Sure, matatus are technically already familiar to “Sense8” fans — the character of Capheus happens to drive one named Van Damm — but given that show’s heightened state of reality, getting to see the real thing documented on screen is a delight, especially when it comes to watching both Bourdain and Bell have a great time on the ride on their chosen van (entitled “Mad Max”).

Bell proves himself to be a more-than-capable protege in this episode, even if he is somewhat hesitant about some of the more extreme food challenges with which he was presented over the course of the episode. (Though, to be fair, who would not maybe need a moment before chewing an eyeball or drinking cow’s blood?) Those moments are awkward, to be sure, but full credit to Bell for his commitment, especially since his facial expressions, intentional or not, are some of the episode’s most amusing moments.

It’s good that there’s levity here, that this isn’t ultimately an hour-long eulogy. That said, “Kenya,” as was previously reported, is the last episode of the series completed with Bourdain’s complete involvement.

And its final post-credits coda may be the closest to a goodbye we may ever get from the icon. The sequence, featuring Bourdain musing on how he wants/needs to be a storyteller, isn’t perhaps the perfect farewell, but it lets him say goodbye to some extent, in his own words.

How “Parts Unknown” plans to address its ultimate end in future episodes is still undetermined (beyond plans for an upcoming documentary). But in watching “Kenya,” one factor cannot be denied: the legacy of a man who left us too soon, but gave us a lot while he was still here.

“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.

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