Most of the reviews I’ve encountered of my favorite new television show come from a single source: an irate (presumably) Australian man:
“This is moronic!”
“You actually think this is viable as a TV show?”
“How [expletive] stupid are you?!”
“Teach people about the ancient alien theories without these [expletive] idiots covering half the [expletive] screen.”
These, and other often-bleeped-out reprimands of the Viceland powers that be, have been harvested from the voice-mail of the young network’s complaint line (646-851-0347) and run as a kind of preface before the credits of its new cult hit program, “Traveling the Stars: Action Bronson and Friends Watch ‘Ancient Aliens.’ ” Which, it bears repeating, is the greatest.
The show, which will hit its eighth episode this Thursday at 9 p.m., is precisely what it says: ex-chef and rising rap star Action Bronson (who also hosts Viceland’s tour of international cuisine, “[Expletive], That’s Delicious”) invites a crew of his closest homies and assembles them on a crappy looking couch to smoke insane amounts of weed and watch his favorite show, the History Channel sensation “Ancient Aliens.” (“ ‘Ancient Aliens’ is pretty much the best thing that was ever created by man,” Bronson mumbles in the intro credits.)
The series was conceived by the network’s Vice Labs (normally responsible for the network’s endearingly weird house ads) as an olive branch of sorts, extended to scorned devotees of H2 (the secondary History Channel network that was nixed when Viceland took over its real estate on the dial).
And while fusing two successful brands into one potentially unstable whole is a tried-and-true concept (see: your neighborhood KFC/Taco Bell), the absorption of a beloved, fiercely protected property such as “Ancient Aliens” into Bronson’s den of catastrophically stoned bush league philosophers has proved controversial. To some, like the furious Brett, Bronson’s weekly hangout undermines the integrity of a show earnestly attempting to pull back the veil on the true story of humanity’s origins.
To others, like me, it’s a stunningly elastic achievement in meta-television, and deserves a special Emmy that also functions as a bong.
“This is for the people,” a bleary-eyed Bronson mutters at the opening of Episode 4 (“Creation of Man”), “for my people who like to get stoned, for my people who like to read books, for my people who like to do literature things, take baths, all that. . .”
This kind of . . . let’s call it “free thinking” is characteristic of the discourse on “Traveling the Stars,” which rambles, runs on, detours onto tangents and into deep non sequiturs, and is regularly interrupted by the passage of obscenely ample joints and blunts.
Bronson’s core couch crew — “[Expletive], That’s Delicious” cohort and rapper Big Body Bes, hip-hop musician Knxwledge, and producer The Alchemist — is filled out each episode by a random coterie of guest stars that has included actor Simon Rex, rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator, MTV alum Andy Milonakis, folk legend Melissa Etheridge, and (my favorite so far) “wind dancer/intimacy teacher” Alorah Innana, who leads Bronson in some truly spectacular spiritual dancing.
They smoke, they chat, they nurse Bronson through his coughing fits, they pet puppies that wander on set, they smoke more, and (now and then) they watch the show, pausing (literally) to hash out various questions, skepticisms, and theories. They also blast through Vice’s budget, inviting caterers to lay out sumptuous spreads of fried chicken, or masseuses to give them deep tissue treatments.
What is the point of it all? Well, are you asking about the show or the universe? Whoa, man.
We’ve seen plenty of “watching them watch” programs over the past couple of decades — from “Beavis & Butthead” to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” to Bravo’s savagely uninteresting “The People’s Couch” — but “Traveling the Stars” pushes the genre into new dimensions. The show itself seems chronically stoned; its cameras zone out and zoom in, the all-encompassing green screen backdrop warps into psychedelic patterns, snatches of dialogue trail into cavernous echoes. It’s like a tear in the fabric of cable.
And in the same way that “Ancient Aliens” questions the traditional narratives of human history, “Traveling the Stars” challenges the very nature of what it is to watch television. Just like the constructs of civilization can be turned upside down by pseudo-academic weirdos, so too can those of television be vaporized by a bloodshot gang of lovable stoners.
As bizarre and shapeless and inscrutable as Bronson’s weekly bro-downs can be, there’s also something profoundly relatable about the exercise (or lack thereof). “Traveling the Stars” is TV that wastes its time so that you can waste yours. It’s unstuck from the confinement of narrative; it’s a free spirit searching the stars (or the couch cushions) for meaning (or nugs). It’s at once a fish tank, a crystal ball, and a looking glass.
Can TV about TV be the future of TV? Can the frontiers of entertainment be pushed even further? And, most importantly, can I have some of whatever it is Action Bronson is smoking?