Getting Up to Speed

Richard Linklater has already proved his travel-film-maker bona fides with the winding-European-streetscape porn of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (and the forthcoming Before Midnight squeeeee! ok back to critical review). Now he’s created a new Hulu-exclusive historical travel series, Up to Speed, with our tour guide, the energetic and passionate Speed Levitch. Levitch is a for-real tour guide (apparently featured in the movie The Cruise, which I haven’t seen) who, for the purposes of this series, wanders around various American cities, interviewing forgotten monuments. Yes, monuments. It’s not exactly Rick Steves. It’s aggressively weird. I guess we shouldn’t expect any less from the Austin auteur. Levitch uses phrases like “standing on Shiva’s dance floor of creation and destruction” when talking about how San Francisco is impacted by earthquakes and ends the Chicago episode by jamming with a motley crew of musicians in an alley singing the old union anthem “Solidarity Forever.”

In each episode, Levitch focuses on one aspect of a city’s history, explaining how it shaped the city and its people, looking at the artifacts left behind, and talking about how it influences the city into the present day. It’s a very specific lens through which to view a city, and something a little different than the current travel-show vogue of landing a place and devouring the largest food item you can find there.

That said, the show confuses me a little bit. Levitch’s style of dress and speech (loud patterns, big hair, aging-hippie lilt), and the strange conceit of talking to buildings, some of them with pretty broad accents, makes it feel like a children’s show. And I think the idea of a children’s history/travel show is one whose time has come! Carmen Sandiego forever, baby. But this is not a children’s show. Both Levitch and the monuments curse with some regularity (bleeping out the sturdier swears), and there are references to things like fascism and the anarchist movement without providing enough context for kids to understand. Which makes me think this show must be aimed at adults, but the kind of adults who enjoy childlike things. Which is fine, I guess, as far as that goes, but isn’t something that I personally want a steady diet of. Up to Speed is something that I’d turn to on a lazy Sunday morning when I just want to stay in bed and be entertained, but it’s not going to be mandatory viewing each week.

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