Dangerous Grounds: TV Review
A real sense of danger keeps the series moving at a rapid pace.
In their latest docu-series, the Travel Channel (perhaps best known as "the one that introduced you to a love affair with Anthony Bourdain") follows adventurer and coffee fanatic Todd Carmichael through the wilds of Haiti, Bolivia, Madagascar and Borneo over eight one-hour episodes, where he attempts to ferret out the most flavorful, the rarest, and the flat out best coffee in the world. It so happens that the areas to which Carmichael is drawn because of their coffee production also are, in many cases, some of the globe's most dangerous.
Carmichael's aim isn't just fueled by his romanticism over coffee (he says several times in the premiere episode, "is this not the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" when referring to the bean itself), but he seeks to procure his beans directly from the farmers by cutting out the unnecessary and money-skimming middle man. Unfortunately for both Carmichael and the farmers, the middle man is usually the deeply nefarious sort who lords over the farming villages, taking his cut both ways.
In many adventure-themed docu-series, music and editing help manufacture a sense of tenseness or danger. There's an awareness, usually, that even if the camera crew is ignored there's still in fact an actual crew of people there to help those they are filming, should something extreme happen. In Dangerous Grounds the very realness of the precarious situations is voiced by the cameraman, called "Hollywood" at one point in the premiere, whose uncertain tones in saying "you sure this is smart, dude?" to Carmichael are unmistakable. A few times, Carmichael asks that the camera be turned off or put down for safety reasons -- expensive equipment is eyed up in dangerous, crowded markets or out in the wilds where the duo encounter men with machetes. In the premiere episode, the series uses a few bits of POV camera work and night vision to keep us almost uncomfortably in the loop despite these threats, and the difficulty seeking out and collecting this java treasure is acutely felt.
Carmichael is exceptionally garrulous, and has a potentially polarizing personality as strong as the beans he finds. But he is well informed (particularly about the darkest outcomes) and has an absolutely undeniable passion for coffee and fair trade. His joy over discovering and tasting beans hand-produced from one of the most ancient coffee strains found in the Haitian mountains brings, he says, "a literal tear" to his eye. Further, Carmichael's incredible knowledge of coffee and explanations of the discovery and processing of the beans (he sells over three million pounds of the stuff a year through his gourmet coffee company La Colombe Torrefaction in Philadelphia) make the series educational as well as entertaining, especially for coffee drinkers who may know very little about where that cuppa' joe is sourced.
The series is a natural part of the Travel Channel's wheelhouse, as Dangerous Grounds takes place against some of the most dramatic (and dramatically scenic) backdrops in the world, though the realities of pigs in sewers and rancid foodstuffs are not ignored. Carmichael doesn't just wax on about coffee, he speaks a great deal about the regions he visits, and his experiences with the people there (in the first episode we learn he not only has a friend he can call upon for help Haiti but also a nemesis who must be avoided), touching on economics and sociology in addition to biological and environmental tidbits (such as the information that spotting banana trees on a ridge at a high altitude means coffee is nearby, as the trees provide both shade and very nutrient-dense soil).
Despite the chaos and setbacks and sleeping under one's car with the presumption that at some point someone is going to try and kill you, Carmichael (and, presumably, his beleaguered cameraman) return to Philadelphia with, as Twin Peaks' Agent Cooper would say, "a damn fine cup of coffee." It's only a small part of their larger story though, and so far the adventure seems well worth tagging along with (from the safety of home).
Sundance: On the Scene