In our new series Stream Team, Guardian Australia’s arts writers dig out their favourite hidden gems of streaming to help you while away some isolated hours.
In this new age of closed borders and grounded flights, a lot of us are going to be turning to travel shows – and realising that most are in the business of lying to you. “The flight is just a quick hop across the Pacific!” says a persimon-coloured woman in white linen. “It’s a luxury hotel – but it’s surprisingly affordable!!” says a man wearing tan chinos and dress shoes on the beach.
Travel Man – which has seasons streaming on SBS On Demand – is one of the very few that shows travel for what it is: simultaneously the very best and absolute worst thing you can do.
“The mini-break is a noodley soup of nincompoopery,” says long-time host Richard Ayoade in one episode.
“To mini-break is to prise open the crack of crazy, behind which lurks the absurd notion of leaving your house, certain motion sickness, and the terrifying prospect of interacting with other cultures,” he says in another.
At the start of each show he stands, stiff and sceptical, in the middle of a dazzling European city and says: “We’re here – but should we have come?”
Travel Man has been a hit in the UK since 2015, but I only discovered it in the past year or so while shuffling through On Demand. In each 30-minute episode, Ayoade (comedian, writer, director, and most famously Moss from The IT Crowd) pairs up with a different celebrity for a 48-hour mini-break. They explore a city, try the local food, hit the tourist spots and very begrudgingly have a good time.
In anyone else’s hands that would get tedious (see: An Idiot Abroad), but Ayoade is so infectiously kind that even his outright cynicism comes across as fun. He’s loquacious, neurotic and witty about the silly joys and annoyances of travel.
The show’s at its best when he’s paired with someone who knows how to bounce off that extremely British tendency to complain. Not surprisingly, some of the best episodes are the ones with his mates.
In Copenhagen, Ayoade and Mighty Boosh co-star Noel Fielding drink schnapps and have cute antics at Tivoli amusement park. When Ayoade complains, Fielding smiles and says, “I thought this was going to be a holiday – not one of your weird, anally retentive fright-fests”.
The episode in Vienna with The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd is also worth a watch – if only for this scene in a snowglobe store.
Other celebrities featured on the show include Dawn French, Stephen Merchant, Rob Delaney and Australia’s Adam Hills – all big names in UK comedy. But another, somewhat more unlikely, match is US actor Jon Hamm.
In a longer Christmas episode, Hamm and Ayoade travel to Hong Kong and get foot massages, buy tailored pink and red velvet suits, and practice tai chi. Other Americans (see: Lena Dunham) are a bit too flat and earnest, but Hamm (and Paul Rudd, who also appears on the show) has a big goofy energy that offsets Ayoade’s deadpan charm.
A travel show might sound like a frustrating watch right now. I get that. Some of the most renowned tourist sites in the world are ghost towns, and you’re more likely to be grieving a cancelled trip right now than planning a new one. But as your whole world shrinks to the size of your lounge room, it’s important to remember that this isn’t permanent. This will pass. There will be more trips to plan.
For now, all we can do is look out to the other side: to a time when you can jet off to explore the world with your closest friends, and inevitably complain about motion sickness and lines and prices and sore feet the whole time.
• Seasons one, two, eight and nine of Travel Man are streaming on SBS On Demand now.