'When [Michael] Palin went around the world in 80 days, I wonder if that was the scheduled time or if he just said "I'm sick of this, can we speed it up?"'
An Idiot Abroad documents unwanted travels by an unwilling participant. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant decide to send their friend Karl Pilkington around the world to broaden his horizons. In the first series-I haven't completed the second yet- Karl drags his feet to the Seven Wonders of the World (the Colosseum is swapped with the Pyramids because he'd be too comfortable in Rome). Each episode typically features Karl going off to see a 'Wonder' with minimal information about his trip while his friends back in the office(1) routinely derail his journey by creating diversions and adding new tasks- a visit to the Kumbh Mela (a Hindu pilgrimage on the Ganges river), wrestling lessons in Mexico, dancing the Samba in the Rio Carnival, and in the extreme case, a mock-abduction in Jordan. It's basically a human experiment, or as Gervais puts it, an 'expensive practical joke'.
Karl Pilkington himself is chronically glum, difficult-to-impress and so utterly disinterested that it is painfully funny to watch him, to the extent that many people are convinced he's playing a character (he isn't). His unsuitability for the role of presenter makes this a travel show that's not travel show-y. You won't find him waxing(2) poetic about local food (watch him in 'China') or dancing with abandon ('Jordan', 'Brazil'). Words like 'vibrant', 'exciting', 'adventure' never escape his lips- the one time he used 'magnificent' was part of a tactic to convince Stephen Merchant that the view he had of Machu Picchu was just as good as being there. He has none of the joy of living that oozes from the pores of many presenters and consequently, this is a refreshingly frank show. More importantly, whether he's downgrading the Great Wall to 'the alright wall of China' or making helpful suggestions for Christ the Redeemer's beard ('They could have just done with chipping a bit more, making it a bit more hairy'), by making him the 'idiot' in the title, the joke is always on him.
This can make for uneasy viewing. While it's exciting (vibrant! adventurous!) to see the next mad thing that they'll have Karl do, there are moments when it's borderline mean. Stuck in the Amazonian rainforest soon after being on a plane for hours, in the heat, with no food but insects (and crisps, he always brings crisps), he stares into the camera and says that he's genuinely angry and upset and doesn't know how he can convey this. We are suddenly reminded that he is enduring quite a bit for our amusement. I won't call it bullying, as many people are almost conditioned to say when it's anything Gervais, but there's certainly a trade-off to be made between entertainment and complicity.
Because of course, he isn't an idiot. A lot of the observations he makes are searingly accurate- that the cemetery in Mexico suggests that death can be celebrated, and a lot of his concerns valid and sensitive- if he's not a believer, won't attending the Kumbh Mela be disrespectful to those who are? It also strikes me that this show can also be valuable source of information for students of anthropology, religion, sociology, history. Travellers aren't all curious, truth-seeking adventurers, 'heritage' may not be palatable, and encounters can expose prejudices. It's not that we don't already know this but it's rare for a travel documentary to lay them bare.
So yes, there's a lot about Karl and the show that can impress us. But what is Karl not impressed by?
- Karl is not impressed by the Great Wall of China: 'You can see it for miles. Like, it goes over the hills and stuff for miles...but so does the M6.' (3)
- Karl is not impressed by devotees at the Kumbh Mela: 'I thought they'd be sort of more religious looking, you know, prim and proper. This one hasn't even got pants on.'
- Karl does not find Mexican jumping beans in Mexico: ' I can't understand why no one's ever heard of them... You're all stood around here, nothing to do, you'd love these things.'
- Karl is not impresssed by the Chichen Itza: 'It's alright, yeah, it's just a big pyramid.'
- Karl not impressed by the Petra audioguide: 'He said Petra is Latin for... I've forgotten what it is.'
- Karl is not impressed by the Pyramids: 'I'm not worried about who built them because it's ages ago, really. When I first bought my first house, I didn't go: 'who built it?' I want to know: 'is it safe?'
- Karl is not impressed by Christ The Redeemer: 'From a distance, Jesus, top of a hill, looking like he's about to bungee jump. You pass it, you go: 'great, there he is, what else are we doing?'
- Karl is momentarily impressed by dolphins in the Amazon but... 'It still all gets on my nerves how people say they're really intelligent because I've never seen them do anything that's blown me away. The way they get raved about... that's what annoys me, because everyone's always calling me a div.' (4)
(3) Finally, some proper footnotes. The M6 is the longest motorway in the UK.
(4) And here's what div means.