BBC Video // 2010 // 347 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 7th, 2012
Around the world...against his will!
Once upon a time, Karl Pilkington was nothing more than the lowly producer of the radio program The Ricky Gervais Show, working in the background while Gervais and Stephen Merchant took the spotlight. However, every now and then Gervais and Merchant would ask Karl to chime in on something, and they were quickly struck by what a uniquely peculiar mind their producer had. It wasn't too long before The Ricky Gervais Show (which was eventually transformed into an animated series for HBO) essentially turned into Pilkington's program, with Gervais and Merchant quizzing him on a wide variety of topics and gleefully mocking many of his answers. As such, Pilkington is an odd sort of celebrity: a man best-known as the guy another celebrity makes fun of all the time.
Gervais is clearly enamored with Pilkington's view of the world and has devoted a great deal of time to ensuring that the rest of humanity is given the opportunity to enjoy Pilkington's skewed take on things. While the animated version of The Ricky Gervais Show is fitfully entertaining, the giddy travelogue An Idiot Abroad is a considerably stronger showcase for Pilkington. The premise is simple: Gervais and Merchant will send Pilkington to see the seven wonders of the world and will require him to endure a number of humiliating "cultural experiences" over the course of his travels. It all sounds a little cruel, though it's worth bearing in mind that A) Pilkington is getting paid to visit the seven wonders of the world and B) he secretly seems to enjoy having new things to complain about.
I have rarely seen a whiner to rival Mr. Pilkington, who has a talent for finding the worst in almost anything and persuading you that he's correct more often than not. While most travelogues inflate the importance of the great sights they offer with sweeping music and portentous narration, An Idiot Abroad revels in the dismal, dingy disappointments of supposedly remarkable places. In episode after episode, Pilkington visits one famous location after another and finds nearly all of them exasperatingly overrated. Loads of trash littered around the pyramids ruins their majesty for him. The great wall of China is, "more like the so-so wall of China." The Wailing Wall is a hub of endlessly confusing human behavior ("Somebody put their junk mail in one of those cracks!" Karl says with concern). The Taj Mahal is, "pretty much the only decent place in India. Maybe that's why it's a Wonder."
You might have gotten the impression that Pilkington is little more than a condescending xenophobe, but that's only partially true. The man is nearly impossible to categorize; he's as likely to spew a surprisingly graceful insight as he is a potentially offensive bit of politically incorrect commentary. We like him enough to enjoy spending six hours with him, but not so much that we don't enjoy seeing Gervais and Merchant find ways to make him increasingly miserable (over the course of the series, Pilkington is required to fight professional wrestlers, participate in taxing kung fu lessons, eat every unpleasant animal body part imaginable, hide from explosions, endure some intense kidnapping role-play, get his back hair waxed, hang out with cannibals, dive into cow manure, visit a nude beach and engage in all sorts of additional unpleasantries). His moments of delight are few and far between (and tend to arrive at the oddest times); he generally finds something to complain about no matter where he is. As such, Gervais and Merchant figure they might as well give him good reason to complain. Frequently, Gervais will ring Karl up and engage in a conversation along these lines:
Ricky: "Hey. I was sitting in my living room drinking some wine and
thought I'd check in. What are you doing?"
Karl: "I'm doing something embarrassing which is making me absolutely miserable."
The episodes all offer a generous supply of funny stuff, though some prove more rewarding than others. Karl's trip to India offers a hilarious series of increasingly peculiar events (there's nothing funnier than seeing one random person after another run up and throw paint in a distressed Pilkington's face), and his trip to Mexico includes some wonderfully misguided musings ("John Wayne turned out to be gay, didn't he?") and a terrifying ceremony filled with explosives. Alternately, the trip to Egypt proves fairly uneventful and meandering. The biggest disappointment is probably the conclusive "Karl Comes Home," in which Pilkington sits down with Gervais and Merchant to reflect on what has transpired over the course of the series. It's less focused and less entertaining than you might expect, playing more like a bonus feature than a proper final episode of the show (though it does offer considerably more of Gervais and Merchant than any of the other installments). Even so, the middling conclusion did little to dampen my enthusiasm for the show as a whole, and I'm pleased to see that Karl will be sent on a new series of adventures in a second season.
An Idiot Abroad has received an adequate DVD transfer, which only becomes disappointing when Pilkington starts waxing about how nice some of these locations are going to look in hi-def (Merchant: "Karl, you have a job to do. You can't just lay about on the beach all day." Pilkington: "But it's in HD!"). Colors are bright and vibrant, detail is strong and blacks are impressively deep. Audio is also perfectly solid, though the score gets a little too gratingly cutesy at times. Extras include the half-hour "Preview Show" which explains the origins of the series, some deleted scenes and a photo gallery.
An Idiot Abroad isn't much of a travelogue (unless you're most interested in the quality of the toilets in other countries; a subject which occupies Karl's mind quite frequently), but it's a splendid fish-out-of-water comedy which suggests that Pilkington has a long career ahead of him as a miserablist alternative to the likes of Michael Palin and Anthony Bourdain.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 347 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Preview Show
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site