An Idiot Abroad is a BBC travel series dedicated to the seven wonders of the world and the culture that surrounds them. It isn’t a new idea. Dozens of shows have tackled the exact same subject using a combination of stunning photography and a charismatic, informative host which can create a rich, in-depth look at some truly remarkable feats of architecture and ingenuity. But Idiot Abroad offers something that none of those other documentary series has: a host who has no curiosity or interest in the subjects he is sent to cover. Karl Pilkington is the host (or presenter) of Idiot Abroad and is either an Andy Kaufman-esque performance artist or, more likely, a man with unbelievably simple tastes. Either way, his interactions and observations make this travel series extremely entertaining. Hit the jump for our review of An Idiot Abroad on DVD.
Karl Pilkington is probably most recognizable from his role on the highly successful podcast-turned-cartoon The Ricky Gervais Show where he is a constant source of head-scratching, but not completely unreasonable logic. Ricky Gervais and longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant spend the better part of most shows mocking Karl relentlessly and the result is usually entertaining. In Idiot Abroad, Pilkington is given the spotlight and while Gervais and co company ultimately set Karl’s course, it’s up to Karl to carry the show and keep it interesting and he does a great job of it.
Pilkington is genuinely disinterested in the wonders, and throughout the series appears to see his destination (be it the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, etc) as an obligation instead of a focus and often summarizes the wonders in a unimpressed, almost bitter tone. In the first episode, he discredits the Great Wall of China as more accurately being “the alright wall of China.”
However, Karl’s quest is never as simple as going to the wonder, learning a bit about it and coming home. The wonder usually becomes secondary as Merchant and Gervais constantly distract Karl from his journey and send him into uncomfortable situations, presumably just to watch him squirm. Sometimes the side quest is worth documenting, as in India when Karl goes to what appears to be a spirituality convention filled with nude gurus and odd characters. Just as often, though, there’s no real reason for the stop at all, such as the case in Brazil when Karl spends a few hours alone in a flamboyant transvestite’s tiny apartment. While Karl is an entertaining presenter and much of Gervais and Merchant’s comedy is ably based around the pitiful and mundane, some of these stops feel like filler.
Karl is undeniably a complainer and was obviously frustrated at times during the series. But what is amazing and what I think makes the show watchable is the fact that while he may find aspects of the different cultures baffling or stupid, Karl never comes across as hateful toward the people he’s visiting. Being funny and likeable while being critical of a different culture is a fine line to walk but Pilkington finds a way to do it. At one point in the series, Gervais flatly says that there’s nothing malicious about Karl and he’s right. In fact, while watching the show, Karl seems most at ease when he gets time to walk around and talk to people and coincidentally or not, those were my favorite moments of the show.
On the more technical side of things, the show is shot beautifully. Despite Karl’s opinion on most of his destinations, the footage is largely compelling, especially the landscapes. I realize that most reality shows will recreate events and use some creative editing and while I’m sure that there were some rehearsed moments and maybe reshoots, it’s hard to tell where they were. Even though the series is, on the surface, a travel documentary, it plays like a single camera comedy and makes the show more accessible and interesting. In true British fashion, the entire series is only comprised of eight 40-odd minute episodes, with one of those being a clip show/retrospective. There’s also a half-hour series introduction special presented by Pilkington, Gervais and Merchant.
There weren’t many, which was a disappointment. Besides the Introduction Special, the only add-ons are a handful of deleted scenes, none of which were particularly memorable. For instance, one scene features Karl in Israel listening to a man who rides a motorcycle covered in rags and claims to be Jesus Christ. As interesting as that meeting should have been, Jesus mostly ignores Karl and leaves without generating any real content.
Final Grade: B+