I’m glad that Ricky Gervais isn’t my friend. Gervais’ latest brainchild, An Idiot Abroad, is a television show where he and his longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant send their “friend” Karl Pilkington to the Seven Wonders of the World. The show airs on the Discovery Channel affiliate the Science Channel, a sort of rebranding effort where the programming is quirky and only semi-science related. Ricky Gervais calls the new show his most expensive practical joke ever.
Gervais opens the show with a warning about its strong language and nudity and tries, unsuccessfully, to hold back giggles as he adds “watch it, it’s funny.” Beyond that, Gervais only turns up when he phones or texts. Throughout the series he can hardly keep in his laughter as his practical joke is masqueraded as documentary television. During the introduction Merchant expresses genuine interest in the documentary angle of the show: “I’ve been to many exotic places. I genuinely believe that travel broadens the mind,” he says. Ricky Gervais deadpans, “I want him to hate every minute of it.”
For the most part, he does. The Great Wall of China: would be better if you could drive on it. The Wailing Wall: full of junk mail. The Taj Majal: a gravestone with Sudoku on it. Brazil: great place to live if you’re deaf. Pilkington is an idiot abroad. He hated China and warns Gervais that he’s wasting money shooting in high definition because the whole place is gray. It just doesn’t look like where the iPod is made. He discredits the entirety of international cuisine because he doesn’t want to develop a taste for, say, frog legs, and not be able to find it back home.
A short, balding “little Englander” and burgeoning cult icon, he has no interest in seeing the world and a gift for speaking in absolutes, and he can simplify the wonders into a few words followed by a request to leave.
In the seventh and final episode, aired on Saturday, Karl travels to Peru. Before he was dropped in the Amazon, à la Bear Grylls, he visited a four-foot tall medicine man in a white knit cap with yarn pom-poms on it. The medicine-man muddles, in the middle of nowhere, what Karl figures are screws, bits of cotton, string, whatever. Then the man rubs a guinea pig all over him. A phone call later and Karl’s in the Amazon with a soundtrack of bugs, until Gervais walkie-talkies him to remind him to be sure he’s extra polite on his next trip – because he’s going to stay with an indigenous colony of ex-cannibals.
As Karl is rowed down a clay colored river towards the ex-cannibals the show slips into the Ricky Gervais-perfected confessional. This isn’t his first time poking fun at the reality television tradition; he’s the mastermind behind the The Office, which features perhaps the best use of the confessional until An Idiot Abroad. Karl muses on cannibalism, worried that he might be a considered a delicacy and bring back their taste for flesh. But he understands why people would eat people if they were hungry; he hears they taste like pork. He would like to know a little bit about a person before he eats them; as with chicken, he wants to know if it’s an organic person. Once at the colony he explains, in great detail, how to play Connect Four with yourself (eyes closed) after failing to teach the tribe’s children (they don’t have numbers higher than three).
The question, to be resolved in the epilogue episode when Karl returns to England, is whether or not he hated every minute, as Gervais predicted, or if his mind was broadened, as Merchant hoped. Tender moments emerge, particularly in the Jordan episode when Karl decides that he would live in Petra if he could. The show may be a silly, expensive practical joke that’s a waste of money to shoot in HD, but it is a high definition look at the Seven Wonders of the World, and the nitty-gritty culture surrounding them, without a sugarcoated and predictable travel dialogue. Karl Pilkinton is an idiot abroad who broadened my mind.