Bill Weir eats regurgitated kava so you don’t have to.
Midway through the first episode of The Wonder List, premiering on CNN Sunday night, a tribe on the island nation Vanuatu is inducting Weir into their drinking ritual of slurping kava root, banned in many countries for its drug-like effects. Weir wonders how the tribe blends the dense root into drinkable broth, and quickly gets his answer: they chew it and spit it out into a huge container, which eventually became the town keg. Weir, having schlepped a camera crew to the South Pacific island, can’t back down.
It’s one of many adventures the intrepid journalist got himself into over the course of the show’s eight episodes, which span the Galápagos Islands to the Alps to the canals of Venice, interrogating cultures on the hinge of late capitalism.
That Wonder List sounds like wanderlust is no accident: the latter was almost literally the first word out of his mouth when Mediaite interviewed him, and in person Weir is clearly aglow at his globe-charting gig.
He’s been preparing for this since his early days as a local news producer. “I was a one-man band,” he told Mediaite. “As the cameras got better, smaller, cheaper, I’ve always been playing around with selfie recording.” During the 2012 election Weir and a producer skipped the staged campaign stops and instead wandered the states interviewing potential voters with handheld video cameras and editing the footage on a laptop. “The smaller the crew, the better the interview,” Weir learned. “Subjects tend to forget they’re on TV if there’s no lights and boom mics in their face. Smaller cameras mean better storytelling.”
Emphasis on smaller. Weir recruited Phillip Bloom, a “rock star” of the camera world, to film his travels abroad, unaware that Bloom’s freefly movi stabilizer camera, usually reserved for feature films and high-end commercial shots, cut the girth of Stonehenge. The tiny crew lugged the beast up mountains and down swamps. The result was worth it: Bloom’s sweeps of volcanic heights and Florida marshes make The Wonder List one of the more visually arresting shows on television.
It also renders the show vulnerable to charges of voyeurism, of which Weir was hyperaware. “Vanuatu was a careful choice for that very reason,” Weir told Mediaite. “I originally thought about how great it would be to visit some uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. But that’s a very ethical issue. Most of those tribes don’t want CNN crews showing up.”
Instead Weir chose locations based on their liminality between tradition and tourism, growth beckoning and climate change looming. Even the tribes on the Vanuatu islands were divided amongst themselves on embracing western commerce, with some welcoming Weir’s cameras as advertisements for the island. One islander told Weir he hoped to become an actor. “He thinks tourism is the ticket to a better life,” Weir said. “Who are we to say he’s wrong? But I don’t know that he understands the trade-offs.”
Weir also hoped seeing the locales from the perspective of the locals would trouble viewers’ preconceptions. “You see this from Vanuatu to Venice, locals understand that tourism is a double-edged sword,” he said. “A lot of that responsibility gets thrown on us as western tourists.”
CNN president Jeff Zucker has placed a good amount of his chips on original programming, hoping news junkies already migrating to digital will be drawn to CNN’s rapidly expanding web presence, while viewers enticed by Anthony Bourdain and decade-specific specials (The 70s, a sequel to CNN’s successful The 60s, is on its way) will stick around for the reporting. Zucker has approved a dozen new original shows for 2015, of which The Wonder List is the first. The original programming side hopes the prime-time series will alleviate the image of CNN as “the emergency room of cable news,” where people run when events are urgent and leave the moment they subside.
But CNN is still a news-first entity, one that likes to plunk its personalities in the midst of the action. Just as Weir scales volcanoes to get his story, so do his colleagues Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon set up shop amidst the chaos of Ferguson, often to criticisms that they replace the subject of the stories with themselves.
“I think that taking the viewer along on an exploration or adventure, helps tell that story,” Weir said of journalism-by-proxy. “When I’m clinging to the side of a glacier, I can better explain why these people love their life, why they’re willing to risk their lives to do this every day. I understand these people better than if I interviewed them in their living room.”
If that means eating kava-puke, then Weir is game. The Wonder List debuts Sunday night at 10 p.m.
[Image via CNN]
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