Travel shows are often about the illusion of uncomplicated assimilation, how simple it could be to jet off from your dull life and be a part of somewhere foreign, how easy it might be to see another place through the eyes of an insider. In truth, though, travel can be a struggle, a war against the unknown. Then -- poof -- as soon as you've got it figured out, it's time to go.
It's this more reliable understanding of cultural immersion that motivates "Dhani Tackles the Globe," a new Travel Channel show that is part global sports experiment, part travelogue.
Dhani is Dhani Jones, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, with none of the brusqueness that those descriptors imply. He's warm, handsome, eager to learn, and seemingly indefatigably genial. Often he arrives in country with a beautiful scarf casually tossed around his neck. In many episodes, he gamely flirts with the local women. In short, Dhani Jones is the sort of ambassador we need.
Other travel shows emphasize different forms of going native, but this show's conceit involves a particular sort of getting dirty. In each country he visits, Dhani takes on a local sport -- muay Thai fighting in Thailand, rugby in England, jai alai in the Basque region of Spain -- as a window into the local culture.
This is, of course, a fool's errand in multiple ways. Even in other countries, athletes are athletes, a caste unto themselves. (This week's episode -- hurling in Ireland -- is an exception; it's an amateur game, and all the participants have day jobs.) The notion that you can learn something about various local cultures by hanging out with their athletes makes only slightly more sense than the idea that you could do the same with accountants.
Also, there's this: Sports are hard to learn, even for someone with the musculature of Mr. Jones. When practicing schwingen, a style of wrestling native to Switzerland, Dhani is visibly frustrated, sweating profusely and breathing heavily. While trying to learn jai alai -- perhaps the sport with the least overlap with his day job -- he's visibly, and reasonably, unnerved by the frightening speed at which the ball travels. And while nobody appears to want to make a name for themselves by giving the well-paid American athlete an unusually hard time, Dhani's hosts don't mollycoddle him.
If anything, this is less travel show than fitness expose, revealing how conditioning for one sport does little to prepare you for another. "Endurance isn't my thing," Dhani notes in Singapore, while learning how to paddle in a dragon boat race. "I'm a quick-burst kinda athlete."
Being unafraid of failure is one of Dhani's best qualities and makes these episodes feel less like cultural invasions. Each episode culminates in a competition of some sort, in which Dhani is meant to use the wisdom he accumulated in his new land and apply it. But there's no sense of urgency about whether he wins or loses. He's enough of a natural athlete that he won't embarrass himself, and the goal, it's become clear, is camaraderie and acceptance.
Knowledge is a different thing, though. Not much is transmitted on "Dhani" in terms of information about the sport or its parent country -- too many segments are crammed into each episode. Learning how to pour a proper pint of Guinness in Ireland, going surfing in Spain, or getting a fish pedicure in Singapore: These are all worthy activities but distracting from the task at hand. (Also, admirably for a travel show, he doesn't make a spectacle of enjoying the local cuisine -- he barely touches his tongue to the stinky durian fruit in Singapore and grimaces noticeably when eating bugs in Thailand.)
While this show is beautifully shot, it's poorly written. Although when Dhani ad-libs, it's appreciably lighter.
"Even in foreign countries they don't pick up black people," he notes while waiting for a cab in Bangkok.
When getting fitted for a bespoke suit at Ozwald Boateng on Savile Row in London, Dhani admires himself in the mirror. "Don't hate the man, hate the suit!" he exults. "Hate the tailor!"
Spoken like a true local.