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'Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown' review: Jubilant and life-affirming, despite a melancholic undercurrent 

Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in Nairobi,

Anthony Bourdain with W. Kamau Bell in Nairobi, Kenya, on Feb. 25. Credit: David Scott Holloway

THE SERIES "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on CNN

WHAT IT'S ABOUT  The 12th season begins in Kenya, where Anthony Bourdain has traveled with fellow CNN host W. Kamau Bell ("United Shades of America"). It's Bell's first trip to the African continent (Bourdain has been here many times) and the host of "Parts Unknown" wonders what took him so long. Soon enough they plunge into the life — and food — of Kenya. Filming for this season had been underway when Bourdain took his life on June 8. Sunday's Kenya episode contains Bourdain's narration. Other episodes will visit Spain, Indonesia, West Texas and the Lower East Side.

MY SAY When Bourdain ended his life in June, the Bourdain Nation confronted a painful enigma. Devoted fans thought they knew everything about him because he gave so much of himself over 11 seasons. And then he was gone, which forced a reconsideration. What had they missed? What didn't they know? 

Watching repeats these past few months has become something of an exercise in forensics — the search for the telling glance, or sour self-assessment (Bourdain always had a few of those), or the one true thing that hinted at why he would take his own life. A moment arrives late in Sunday's premiere that indicates just how futile that exercise has been.

Sitting on a bluff next to Bell, with Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy spreading out to the horizon, Bourdain begins to choke up, then says, "I [expletive] pinch myself. I cannot [expletive] believe I get to do this or see this. Forty-four years old and dunking fries, I knew with absolute certainty I'd never see Rome, much less this."

Heartbreaking because it's so purely Bourdain — the joy, passion, and most of all the gratitude for the world he got to see — there's also something almost comforting in the moment. There's the frank affirmation that he really did know he had the best job in the world, but also that he had pursued it in the spirit of someone who knew he had been blessed. The mystery of his death will likely remain a mystery. What's self-evident is that remarkable life. The 12th season launch is just one more reminder, a particularly joyful one.

Some of the best episodes of "Parts Unknown" have almost nothing to do with food — his shows from Libya or the Congo, for example — and food occupies only about five minutes of program time Sunday. The food looks fine. It's just that Bourdain and Bell have so much else to see — a whole nation in fact.    

They go to used clothing markets where castoffs from the United States have found their way to some out-of-the-way bazaar in Nairobi. They visit a women's boxing program. They travel through the country on a party bus. They interview members of a gay art collective where the artists speak of their efforts to combat laws against homosexuality.

Who else but Bourdain would visit a gay art collective in Kenya, then explore in considerable depth the challenges facing gay Kenyans?

Seriously: Who?

Bourdain always brings out the best in his travel companions, and he brings out the best in Bell, who explains the genesis of his Kenyan name, and his ongoing efforts to sync his identity as a black American with his African roots. As usual, the best parts of "Parts Unknown" have little to do with food, but everything to do with life.

There's a melancholic undercurrent to this hour. That's unavoidable. But what matters most, and always has, is the jubilant, life-affirming surface that teems with human stories. They make you feel better about being a human, too. Bourdain always did.

BOTTOM LINE At least the first episode of this final season appears to be like all the others — gorgeous and life-affirming.

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