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On America Outdoors, Baratunde Thurston is a splendid guide through nature’s narratives

On America Outdoors, Baratunde Thurston is a splendid guide through nature’s narratives
PBS's America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston returns for a second season of Baratunde's travels around the United States to explore its outdoor spaces and how people interact with it (Photo by Twin Cities PBS/Part 2 Pictures)

Baratunde Thurston’s bearded face opens to a joyful awe whether he’s stepping onto a floating island of decomposing vegetation, riding a horse across the barren landscape of Idaho, listening to the sounds of animals through headphones, or collapsing onto a surfboard after catching a wave.

The host of PBS’s America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston finds meaning in small moments. “I think you just described freedom,” he says to someone who’s talked about relaxing and de-stressing outside.

To a person who grabs a six-foot snake with his bare hands from the forest floor in the darkness of night, Baratunde laughs, “You’re a different type of dude.”

Perhaps the same could be said for Baratunde. In his hosting, there are fragments of of Anthony Bourdain’s curiosity, Barack Obama’s easygoing interviewing style, and Padma Lakshmi’s expertise.

America Outdoors works because Baratunde has a deep affection for nature and people, and an ability to wrap that around an awareness of its changes and its barriers, while making all of this as approachable as looking out the window at a tree—or, I suppose, looking at your TV.

A man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt sitting on a log
Writer, podcaster, and TV host Baratunde Thurston (Photo by Twin Cities PBS)

Each episode of America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston immerses us in a place, as Baratunde visits with a handful of people who have deep connections to it, learning about their lives and experiences.

Whether the camera is drifting over the L.A. river or through the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail, the photography is mesmerizing, and so is Baratunde’s narration, which offers history and context. It offers both adoration of, and meditation on, natural spaces and their relationship to people.

That continues in the second season (PBS, Wednesdays at 8), which is just as strong as the first. (Season one is available on PBS Living or PBS Documentaries, and for purchase on Amazon and Apple TV.)

This year, Baratunde will explore the Suwannee River in Georgia and Florida, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Maine, adding to his season-one travels to Death Valley, Idaho, Los Angeles, Appalachia, North Carolina, and Minnesota.

A familiar format, a different sensibility

A man holds a turtle-like reptile while another man looks on and smiles
Mario shows an alligator snapping turtle to Baratunde Thurston looks on the “Suwanee” episode of America Outdoors season 2 (Photo by Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS)

The format of America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston—a charismatic host traveling the country and visiting with people, captured by attractive cinematography, a title with a “with”—is familiar.

It’s shared by two other similarly excellent series, Hulu’s Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi and Max’s Take Out with Lisa Ling.

All three come from production company Part2 Pictures, whose attention to craft and content has made all must-watch reality TV for me.

Yet they aren’t carbon copies of each other. Their subjects differ, of course, but it’s the sensibility that each host brings which changes everything.

A man in a plaid shirt in a hammock with brown, shallow water visible beneath him
Baratunde Thurston rests in a hammock in the Arkansas episode of American Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston season 2 (Photo by Part2 Pictures/Twin Cities PBS)

Baratunde Thurston is a writer, activist, and podcaster who worked at The Onion and as a producer at The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. His most-recent book, a satirical essay collection, How to Be Black, includes essays such as “How to Be the Black Friend” and “How to Speak for All Black People.”

His humor about serious ideas pervades America Outdoors, too. “We’re invading their sex time,” he says of fish spawning in the L.A. river. “Well, that’s rude.”

Whether he’s trying something—surfing, fishing—or interviewing people, he brings us alongside him.

Touches of history and context are folded together in Baratunde’s narration by the editing, which also includes on-the-fly interviews with everyday people, broadening the story of the place and people who live, work, or play there.

All of this adds up to an indelible story of the places the show visits—and just a damn entertaining show, too, one that made me want to immerse myself in the places it visits.

Yet America Outdoors has one other trick up its sleeve, a way of constantly, gently surprising me: with information (how close great white sharks swim about, without issue, near people in the ocean; that 30 percent of California firefighters are incarcerated people) or stories (what’s led a person to their outdoor pastimes or work, how a place has changed, and why).

Those arrive not as pronouncements, but as part of the landscapes, drifting down and forming something new: a greater appreciation for the United States’ outdoor spaces, and for the show that celebrates them.

American Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston is a perfect guide through America’s outdoor spaces, exploring them—and the stories behind them—with charm, wit, and insight. A+

What works for me:

  • Baratunde Thurston, as host and storyteller
  • The effortlessness of the cinematography and editing
  • Combining lived experience and contextual storytelling

What could be better:

  • More episodes
  • I should have recommended it last year during season one!

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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