Of all the things Ricky Gervais enjoys doing — acting, directing, writing, taking pictures of himself in the bathtub — annoying his friend Karl Pilkington has got to take top billing. The first two seasons of An Idiot Abroad were based solely on this idea: sending Karl out into a world that he wants nothing to do with (left to his own desires, he would never have even left Manchester for London).
While most people would salivate at the opportunity to go to the places Ricky sent Karl (though maybe not in the style he went in), Karl has never had any interest in the Seven Wonders or traveling “anywhere you have to get a vaccination to visit.” His unique perspective though, and very real displeasure at some of the things he was asked to do, resonated both emotionally and with humor for viewers. It’s what Ricky discovered over ten years ago on their London radio show when Karl was just an unknown producer, and has continued to successfully bring to audiences in different mediums (books, podcasts, TV shows). But has the joke run its course? Hit the jump for my take on how this third season of the travel series panned out, with its new addition of Warwick Davis.
Like Karl, Warwick (Willow) is also a previous Gervais collaborator, most recently working with him (and Stephen Merchant, who is typically Ricky’s writing partner on all projects, though curiously not involved in An Idiot Abroad 3) on Life’s Too Short, which HBO broadcast earlier this year to the same tepid reviews it received during its initial run in the U.K. It wasn’t Warwick’s fault though, it was that the writing felt lazy and repeated just one joke over and over again — that Warwick is a little person, and Ricky finds that funny.
That’s a large part of An Idiot Abroad 3, as well, which covers the route Marco Polo took from Venice (which Karl once described as “London, flooded”) to China. Karl apparently said he would do a third series if he could bring a friend along, meaning Ricky. Ricky decided instead to invite Warwick to go with him (Warwick appeared briefly during the second season). Karl’s reaction, in front of Warwick, was to complain that Warwick would slow him down and “hang on” him “like a leech, sucking my blood, taking everything from me.” He also described him as a limpid or a stag beetle, “just clinging on.”
For those not familiar with Karl, he’s not attempting to be funny. He speaks his mind, and he doesn’t play nice just for the sake of it. This can be endearing sometimes, and also terribly callous. Warwick sits with a smile and takes the abuse, which Ricky tries to make up for during the course of the trip by booking Warwick much nicer rooms than Karl, and making sure Karl doesn’t bully him (or be seen to bully him). Still, the two men never get along, with the usual balance being that if one is happy the other is miserable, which is uncomfortable to watch. Only once over the course of the three episodes are the two on the same page, and it’s brief and not exactly a truly shared experience.
Making Karl miserable is one thing (it works for everyone), or just following Warwick on a travel show would be interesting, but somehow the two together is just not. And while Warwick is a very good sport about everything and Karl occasionally stumbles upon the profound (musing about religion or the afterlife), things never gel in the way they have done in the prior series. It feels like both men are playing up to what Ricky has told them is funny, instead of just being themselves.
Though Ricky says at one point “I don’t want this to be pure exploitation like one of those tacky shows,” this comes just about the time that Karl meets the “Spider Girls,” conjoined twin girls in India who are put on a table to make money from people gawking at them. Meanwhile Karl harangues Warwick to sit up on the table with them too to have his hair combed (of all bizarre things), just after he’s already drawn a large crowd of gawkers in the street. It’s a train wreck you can’t look away from, but it’s also unfortunate, because though Karl is genuinely sweet with the girls, he’s still unthinking with Warwick.
The two get up to an amazing amount of hijinks in such a short amount of time, from appearing in a Bollywood film (Karl also takes shots at Warwick constantly for calling himself an actor when “no one’s ever seen your face. You’ve played a bear, an ewok. Nobody knows,” like in some meta-sketch from Life’s Too Short), as well as attending religious ceremonies in Macedonia, to seeing the sun rise over the Ganges in India. Fans of the old XFM shows and podcasts the trio (Ricky, Steve and Karl) used to do will be thrilled to see a dream that Ricky (and listeners) have had for a decade come true: to lift Karl up into the air with balloons. Except the reality of that venture, like most of this installment of An Idiot Abroad, is ultimately, despite a few bright moments, a disappointment.
Bottom Line: Fans of Karl and the other series will find it worth a watch for the occasional classic line, but others may just find it confusing at best.
An Idiot Abroad 3: The Short Way Round premieres Saturday, January 19th at 9 p.m. on the Science Channel. Watch the trailer below: