In his pursuit of happiness, Ravi Patel – and his family and friends – discuss big topics in a charming, heart-warming way.
HBO Max’s new four-part docuseries Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness is much more than just a travel show. Hosted by Ravi Patel, the child of Indian immigrants who moved to the United States and made good, it’s informed by his experiences and worldview – and those of his friends and family – in a way that considers happiness in all its forms, and provides no easy answers to complex questions about life and how we live it.
Ravi’s parents, Champa and Vasant, feature strongly in the first episode, which isn’t subtle in its considerations of age and mortality. All three visit a retirement hotspot in Mexico, where retirees live miles away from their families – this is an idea almost incompatible with the Indian family structure, and is a point of contention for Ravi and his wife, Mahayley; he’d rather his parents were close, and she would rather they weren’t.
But Ravi’s position here doesn’t just amount to the fact that he loves his mum and dad, although both are very charming. It’s a fusion of Indian and American influences that help to couch Ravi’s perspective – and by extension that of the show – in a very contemporary blend of ideas and angles.
In the second episode, Ravi and Mahayley travel to Japan to explore the role of parenting, an endlessly evolving and always contentious topic of the kind that Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness enthusiastically explores. Familiar troubles – the difficulty of finding a work-life balance, for instance, or the “guilt” of desiring time away from one’s kids – are frankly discussed by Ravi in relation to his own experiences, not in a detached, anecdotal way, and that candid approach is a great boon for the series. Another is how it depicts the stark cultural differences in an entirely open-minded and non-patronizing way, not just in the scenes we see, but in the experiences Ravi has inherited from his background in what remains a very patriarchal culture.
The aforementioned topic of work-life balance comes up again in the third episode, during which Ravi and his friend Matt travel to South Korea. That destination – well-known for both the admirable work ethic of its citizens and its very high suicide rate, two facts which aren’t unrelated – is well-chosen, but the angle from which the matter of a high-stress culture is addressed side-steps doom and gloom in favor of a focus on coping mechanisms and a charmingly open-minded approach to the idea of death. It also draws pretty stark comparisons between Western and Eastern cultures and their respective treatment of recreation; for someone like me, a workaholic whose family in on his case constantly, seeing Ravi frankly admit his own failings in this area endeared him to me, as I imagine it will to many others.
It’s the fourth and final episode that discusses the most hot-button topic, which is, of course, immigration. Here, Ravi and his friend Adbullah, also from an immigrant family, though in his case a Muslim one, travel to Denmark. This episode is basically the idea of a perspective evolving from hearing both sides of an argument in microcosm; Ravi’s thoughts on immigration initially clash even with his travel partner, an unashamed proponent of open borders and free movement, but encounters with a refugee community and people sympathetic to the idea of a freer system help to reshape that viewpoint.
Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness doesn’t come down exclusively on one side of this issue, though, considering the opposing perspective of policymakers, and highlighting the important difference between immigrants and refugees and why the public is liable to be more sympathetic to one than the other, despite their similar desires of a better life. But this episode is also one that feels as if it’s overall perspective is quite clear from the beginning, and would have been more provocative and interesting had it tackled the same issue in the United States rather than Denmark.
It’s easy to wish for more episodes here, since Ravi’s relatable approach is enlightening, and he’s the kind of sturdy, reliable host you’d trust to lead you through an examination of complex, contentious topics. The destinations and Ravi’s travel companions are well-chosen, and the topics discussed are – at least for the most part – treated even-handedly and yield very few easy answers. But despite the complexity of the subjects, the series is never anything less than charming and represents a big, broad cross-section of humanity that many people will find useful and compelling.