The Office scribes Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant team up with their best friend, Karl Pilkington for An Idiot Abroad, an 8-episode series that has Gervais and Merchant ship Pilkington around the world, to see the 7 wonders of the world. For those unfamiliar with the trio, there is a set-schtick: Merchant and Gervais both gang up on Pilkington, who they think is a remarkable idiot. On the show’s opening credits, Gervais and Merchant go on at length about Pilkington’s mulish ways and his dimness. The gimmick of the show then relies on Pilkington traveling to some far-flung destination and making some foolish comments about it.
I listen to the guys’ podcasts, so I’m very familiar with the act. What’s important to note is that Pilkington is not stupid, but just sheltered. It appears that he hasn’t experienced a whole lot and as a result a lot of what he says comes from a place of ignorance. But what’s interesting about An Idiot Abroad, is aside from each episode’s opening where Pilkington riffs with his two famous pals about the episode’s destination, some of what he says can often be witty.
So each episode has Pilkington board a plane and fly off to some foreign country. Ostensibly, he’s there to visit some wonder – whether that’s the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China. But Merchant and Gervais enjoy putting Pilkington into situations where culture shock blends with rough conditions, which creates stressful and dire moments that try Pilkington’s patience and reserve: for example, instead of merely visiting Manchu Pichu, he has to camp out in the Amazon rainforest and duke it out with the array of exotic and frightening insects (not to mention a tribe of former-cannibals); or when seeing the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio di Janeiro, Pilkington must first participate in the Carnivale parade and hang out with muscle fairies and drag queens at a gay beach.
As said, Pilkington’s comments aren’t always stupid, and sometimes he voices the Western confusion and reticence with travel – especially, when he’s faced with unfamiliar foods or customs. When going to India, he comes across a gallery of yogis – one who is called an elephant Babi, because he’s disfigured (think the Elephant Man); one man who kept his hand raised for over 12 years; and finally a contortionist who was able to wind his penis around a staff and perform acrobatic tricks.
Pilkington is a genial presence, and over all he seems like an all right chap – which is why that at times, his lack of grace and insensitivity is so jarring: for example, he has a young, smart as a whip, kid take him to a museum in Cairo, only to abandon the guy because he’s bored; his xenophobia often borders on embarrassing: he’ll gag openly when he sees folks eat untraditional fare like insects or offal. What’s most distressing is his homophobia – in Brazil, Pilkington practically breaks out in hives around gay men, and it’s awful to watch his stunned and displeased reaction when his host for the night, walks into the living room a drag queen (not to mention his ridiculous yammerings on what would it be like if he were gay).
But don’t think he’s all bad: in India, he’s very charming and lovely to his spiritual guide who takes him to the Ganges. And when he first arrives in India, he developes a great rapport with his travel guide, a rickshaw driver/kebab cook. And his trip to Israel is refreshing too: instead of showing the expected one-sided image of the put-upon, victimized Israel, the show takes Pilkington across depressing security checks to Palestinian territory: the differences between Israel and Palestine are eye-opening and grave; there are no sides taken – the folks Pilkington runs into in both countries are warm, embracing and peace-loving – but TV rarely shows Palestinians or Palestine, unless it’s a story about terrorism.
Merchant lovingly calls his friend a “little Englander” – there are elements of that with Pilkington’s musings. He often will turn down local cuisine, and instead much away on bags of chips or cookies – or worse, instead of tucking into local fare, he’ll head to a KFC; when in Egypt, he’s seen munching away at a Pizza Hut, with a view of the pyramids from his window.
There’s an obvious shadow of Michael Palin hanging over An Idiot Abroad. The Monty Python alumnus’ iconic travel shows loom large, and Pilkington even stays at the Windsor, the same hotel Palin stayed in when he visited Egypt. There’s an obvious difference in this show in that Pilkington’s often at the mercy of his jokey friends – and instead of rolling with it, he spends his time complaining (though to be fair, he does participate). Still, the beauty of Pilkington is his off-the-wall philosophy and unique take on life – and the absurdity of his surroundings, as well.