Review: The Esquire Network’s “The Getaway” is one of the Fall’s most surprising pleasures

You know it’s a busy Fall on television when it’s easy to not simply overlook the launch of a new show, but the launch of an entire network. And yet, I’m sure there are many who are unaware that the Esquire Network even exists two months after its launch. Such is the depth and breadth of the medium these days, in which the broadcast networks struggle for viewers and niche networks such as Esquire seek to carve out a small, but demographically-viable, slice of those that have fled the Big Four. While reruns of existing properties dominate Esquire’s 24-hour programming cycle (not a huge surprise for a young network, or most niche networks of any age), there’s one original piece of programming in the network’s repertoire that’s worth the effort it may take to figure out where Esquire exists on your cable box: the Anthony Bourdain-produced travel program “The Getaway.”

“The Getaway” doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to shows such as this. But its production values and creative narrative approach make each episode a journey unto itself while still feeling part of a larger kaleidoscope of food, drink, clothing, and society. All of these are important to the network’s overall brand, and “The Getaway” delivers these things through the presence of a single celebrity that it follows each week to a destination of the host’s choice. To be fair, the idea of a show based around paying for the dream trips of famous people who could easily afford it on their own sounds pretty terrible on paper. It’s a reason why I didn’t get around to actually watching the show until a few weeks into its run. But while “The Getaway” sounds like an attempt to pay off Joel McHale, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, and others to hawk the launch of a new network actually serves as a clever way to show off the real stars of this show: the cities it visits each week.

paul-feig-boston-2s.jpgThe cities visited in this first season aren’t exactly “exotic”: New York City, Los Angeles, London, and Belfast have been featured thus far, and even cities such as Hong Kong are somewhat familiar to those watching. But rather than send celebrities to places they have never been, “The Getaway” allows these people to return to long-time favorite locales. There’s an actual emotional reason McHale visits Belfast, or Josh Gad returns to New York City. There’s a pre-established connection between celebrity and city that provides an actual reason for that person to allow a camera crew to follow him/her over the course of a three-day stay. What unfolds is usually a mix of the familiar (visiting favorite restaurants, seeing old friends) and the new (usually in the form of a unfamiliar neighborhood or new hotspot).

This creates an opportunity for both curiosity and curation in the best of episodes. In this week’s episode (airing Wednesday, November 13th, at 9 pm), Paul Feig (director of “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” as well as creator of “Freaks And Geeks”) visits Boston. As someone who has lived in and around Boston for the majority of his life, I was curious to see what Feig would deem fundamentally necessary as part of his 72-hour visit. As it turns out, his specific trip is fairly limited in geographical scope. This guy LOVES the North End, and thus spends about half of the episode’s running time visiting its myriad of restaurants. And who can blame him? The North End is amazing. Luckily, his episode covers more ground through use of the show’s actual secret weapon: its on-the-street interviews interspersed throughout each episode.

The best episodes of “The Getaway” use celebrities to get viewers into the door and expose them to the culture of a particular city. Yes, it attempts to do that through visits to posh bars and fancy restaurants and clothing stores that take 3-D body scans in order to accurately construct couture suits. But it also interviews denizens of each city and cuts those interactions alongside the celebrity’s journey to suggest that this person’s getaway is just one of a million different paths one could take in this city. Sometimes these talking heads are people that the celebrity encounters during the getaway. Often times they are just part of the overall fabric of the city. In other case, the show’s deployment of these interviews not only unburdens the host from carrying all the narration. It also lends authenticity to the proceedings via a mixture of class, age, race, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds. “The Getaway” likes to emphasize a high-class version of the city it depicts. But it refuses to ignore that city’s vitality. This show is happy to show you how to spend $20,000 in a single weekend. But it’s not simply lifestyle porn. In its best episodes, it shows the beating heart in that destination’s glitzy chest.

To that end, rather than use Feig’s itinerary as a “must-follow,” it simply shows his personal preferences as the tip of a much larger iceberg. On top of that, Feig’s bond with the city (forged during his time filming “The Heat” on location here) is so strong that he can’t help but be interested in those with whom he comes into contact. Rather than conveying the impression this city is lucky to have him back, Feig radiates a general sense of warmth towards all those with whom he comes into contact. In this scenario, Feig is the lucky one, not the other way around. Sure, he gets to eat oysters that probably cost a week’s worth of my salary. But he also has a blast inside the distillery of two brothers trying to eek out a living. Both experiences are equally exciting for him, and thus, for us.

Most celebrities depicted in this show’s first season have expressed a fondness for the cities they visit to one degree or another. But it’s never felt quite as authentic as this week. As such, Feig is probably the best type of host for this show in its future. More than a celebrity, he’s simply a curious citizen of the world. “The Getaway” probably can never get away from using celebrity hosts to draw in audiences to its nascent network. But it would do well to find those that don’t shine brightly during this trips, but rather blend in seamlessly with the surroundings. After all, it’s those surroundings that will be there should any viewers plan their own getaways. And they are what makes “The Getaway” one of the most surprising pleasures of this fall season.

“The Getway” airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on the Esquire Network.