With Ricky Gervais in the news following his cringe-inducing (but mostly funny) skewering of Hollywood during the Golden Globes, it felt appropriate to give him even more press by reviewing his new show on Science Channel called “An Idiot Abroad” (premieres Jan 22). Keep something in mind: Gervais isn’t really the star here. In fact, he hardly gets any screen time at all. That’s reserved for Karl Pilkington, who we all know as Gervais’ seemingly dim-witted “mate” from the animated “The Ricky Gervais Show” on HBO. It seems Gervais and longtime producing partner Stephen Merchant thought it would be loads of fun to send their somewhat unworldly pal to see the Seven Wonders of the World, letting a camera crew document every awkward moment and gaffe-laden attempt to mix with the locals.
Truth be told, Pilkington’s constant inability to grasp foreign cultures makes for amusing TV. In fact, parts of the pilot—which focuses on Pilkington’s trip to see the Great Wall of China—are downright hilarious. It’s a strange viewing experience. On one hand, you feel sorry for this bloke who apparently doesn’t know he’s the butt of vast practical joke. On the other hand, you suspect he knows very well that he’s the butt of a vast practical joke. Is this an Andy Kauffman-esque wink—or is this guy really this unaware? We don’t know. Perhaps we don’t want to know. But he must at least sense that he’s in a symbiotic relationship with Gervais and Merchant. He acts like a doofus; in return, they put him on TV and presumably pay him a nice fee besides to play along.
The viewer, meanwhile, is led to believe that Pilkington hates every minute of this journey. He grumbles to the camera about how “weird” the Chinese are (they eat scorpions on a stick, after all, and wolf down hard-boiled chicken fetuses). And he complains constantly about the various adventures Gervais and Merchant set up for him (attempts to learn Kung Fu, a painful massage in which the towels are set on fire, etc). But it’s as if we all know the truth: Pilkington kinda likes the attention. And we’re guessing this won’t be the last time he lets Gervais put him in an embarrassing situation for our amusement. As Pilkington told us at the TCA tour earlier this month, being friends with Gervais is kind of like owning a dog: It seems like a great idea at first, until you realize that the dog won’t stop going in the house.
“An Idiot Abroad” isn’t a laugh a minute. In fact, there are long stretches in which Pilkington does little more that stare into the distance making inane observations and, more or less, complaining about his plight (as if he had no choice but to do the show). But overall, this is an endearing portrait of a well-meaning neophyte struggling somewhat reluctantly to learn about unfamiliar cultures. Of course, this leads us to the rather large elephant in the room: Is this science? Well… Webster’s defines science as “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.” Let’s just say this: While Pilkington doesn’t necessarily possess his own scientific curiosity, the prodding by Gervais and Merchant force that curiosity out of him. And if we consider anthropology a science, then I suppose we can call “An Idiot Abroad” a quirky salute to the scientific process. Of course, you may have heard that the American Anthropological Association recently deleted the word “science” from its statement of long-range plans (Look it up. It’s true). Wow. This is a tough question… what to write, what to write… Oh, you know what? Let’s not overthink a show with “Idiot” in the title. Science or not, Pilkington’s pretty fun to watch.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).