American Dreams and Road Trips: Packing Up Season 1 of 'Unplanned America'
In the final two episodes of its first season, the guys seek out the paranormal, settle for the weird, and wrap up their cross-country adventure.
Unplanned AmericaCast: Pawel Jarecki, Tim 'Gonzo' Ryan, Nick Maher
Subtitle: Waking Up from the American Dream and On the Road
In "Waking Up from the American Dream", the Unplanned America gang explore the communities that form in the wake of the country's race toward progress by visiting Detroit, Michigan, the former home of the American automobile industry. Although they initially troll Detroit's post-apocalyptic landscape for what locals refer to as "ruin porn", the guys actually wind up documenting a much different reality in America's most financially bankrupt city.
Don't mistake me, there are still very haunting images of urban ruin in this episode: old factories fall in on themselves, abandoned office buildings are littered with paper and furniture, and wood-paneled courthouses rot from the inside out. It's startlingly to see how quickly and efficiently nature takes back its land.
This reclamation has, ironically, been a positive force in Detroit's communities. These communities have come together to turn unused spaces into farms that provide fresh produce for those who otherwise might not be able to afford it. One of the youth volunteers explains that spending time on the urban farms keeps the city's young people off the streets and out of trouble, as well as providing them with valuable skills.
In fact, what is most striking about the Detroit we explore in this episode is how necessity has brought together communities and neighborhoods in an intimacy generally unheard of in urban areas. Contrary to the image of Detroit purveyed in American popular media, what Unplanned America shows is something more like a post-industrial communal ideal. The city's artists buy up foreclosed real estate and turn it into a shared fabrication space; a neighborhood dinner bell rings and everyone assembles in the alley for a community meal. The episode shows that there are very real problems facing the people of Detroit, but also manages to emphasize the creative solutions from community efforts rooted in a love of the place they call home.
The final episode of Unplanned America is a round-up of all the little road trip memories we didn't see in the earlier, more thematic episodes. It actually opens at the onset of the six-month road trip we've seen unfold over the past five episodes. Gonz and Parv are stateside for two weeks without Nick's supervision (although we're treated to his commentary via voice over), and they make ample use of their time. There is a short montage of their misadventures in South Padre Island, Texas, an infamous Spring Break destination. They shotgun cheap beer, allow strangers to taze them for sport, and get insulted by well-intentioned but completely inebriated young women. In short, they have an authentic Spring Break experience.
Their next adventure is a fruitless attempt to see the fabled, strange lights of Marfa, Texas. On their way to the tiny artists' community in the middle of the West Texas desert, they happen upon one of the many ghost towns that dot the Mexican border. Reminiscent of the previous episode on Detroit -- although perhaps more accurately described as prescient, since this stop precedes that one chronologically -- Parv comments on the eeriness of abandoned everyday objects. The amount of waste that American communities generate as they grow, falter, and fade has been an ongoing theme in Season 1; I appreciated seeing the boys' recognition of it for the first time.
Persevering in their attempts to encounter the American paranormal, they continue to New Mexico to meet up with real-life UFO Chasers Larry and Kouka Decker. Like their Marfa Lights experience, this one is uneventful. There is nothing extraordinary in this desert either, except for the hospitality and the genuine openness of their hosts. One of my favorite images from the whole season is a time lapse shot of Gonzo, Parv, and the Deckers around a dinner table, eating, drinking Pepsi, laughing, and taking photos. When they are later inducted into the official UFO Chasers society, it's clear that the guys are both amused and touched by the warmth of their hosts.
The remainder of the episode is a grab bag of weird and fun vignettes. Still sans Nick, Gonz and Parv attend the 15th Annual Rockabilly Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. They explore the community's connection to music, cars, and '60s nostalgia, and even catch a burlesque show or two. They also delve more into the unsexy prices that must be paid for these kinds of adventures: less-than-ideal sleeping conditions, encounters with vaguely threatening local flora and fauna, and unforeseen medical emergencies.
One of my favorite aspects of the final episode was that the audience was finally, properly introduced to the road trip's fourth participant: the unreliable 1999 Toyota Camry. (In my opinion, this introduction should have happened sooner.) We finally see how it came to have that epic paint job, and are treated a list of its mechanical failures over the course of the six-month road trip, including replacement of the ignition chamber, the timing belt, three tires, and the entire engine. Sadly, but appropriately, the episode's final shot as the credits roll is the Camry being lifted onto the back of a tow truck.
This was also the first episode where I experienced couple moments of eerie self-recognition in the cultures being explored, and I expect that this will be a large part of the pleasure American viewers take in the show. An even larger and more unexpected pleasure, however, is getting to know these three Australian friends over the course of their six-month adventure. They each bring something to the group dynamic that makes the show what it is -- a little bit of childish playfulness, a little bit of philosophic reflection, and a good-sized sense of humor.
The next installment in the American (mis)adventures of Nick, Gonz, and Parv are already available on Netflix, and from what I hear, the trio are currently editing their third season of material. As an American misfit, I can confirm that there is no shortage of weirdo subcultures or wacky trouble to get into here, but I'm excited to watch these three attempt to exhaust all the opportunities of doing so in Seasons 2 and 3.