Ricky Gervais’ travel reality series, billed in its second season as An Idiot Abroad 2: The Bucket List, returned to American airwaves on the Science Channel this past Saturday, just as triumphantly hilarious as the first season. Unlike Gervais’ recent lackluster and toothless third Golden Globes hosting gig, this series thankfully hasn’t fallen to diminishing returns.
Gervais’ brand of cringe humor lands best when he is stationed high and mightily above his unwitting subject. Karl Pilkington’s simpleton routine is endearing at its core and proves to be the perfect comic foil for Gervais and his partner, Stephen Merchant. An Idiot Abroad works both as a travelogue and as a comedic series. It is an entertaining blend of highlighting the amazing diversity of the world’s offerings, and out-and-out schadenfreude, taking pleasure in Karl’s blunders and misfortune.
Those familiar with The Ricky Gervais Show podcast and animated television series can witness the dynamic between Ricky and Stephen’s mocking insistence play out against Karl’s simplistic and earnest worldviews in full force. In the first season of An Idiot Abroad, Ricky and Stephen sent Karl on a trek around the world on a mission to behold the seven wonders of the modern world. Along the way, Karl was forced out of his comfort zone, from receiving a fire message in China to attempting Mexican wrestling.
In this second season, Karl has agreed to yet again venture off into the world, choosing adventures off a “bucket list” of things to do before you die. Of course, things aren’t ever as easy as Karl would hope, and Ricky and Stephen undermine Karl by sending him off on ridiculous, and for Karl, humiliating, tasks.
In this season opener, “Desert Island,” Karl chooses the seemingly straight-forward task of spending a night on a deserted island by himself. Throughout the course of Karl’s stay on the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, Ricky naturally intervenes, and Karl is tasked to “land diving” (think bungee jumping with vines), “arseboarding” and later tumbling down the side of a volcano, and wearing nambas, a version of skimpy underwear made of foliage. Karl’s stubbornness to participate in any events and frank unwillingness to embrace the culture around him are gut-bustingly comical. However, his closed-off nature doesn’t ever become off-putting, but rather endears us to him even more.
A welcome, if not fleeting, addition to the series are those rare moments where we see the normally downtrodden Karl actually enjoy himself for once. After completing a not-at-all impressive five foot land dive, we see him celebrate with the tribe. In fact, when Karl shares this event to Ricky over the phone, Karl can’t help but laugh when Ricky points out how unworthy his accomplishment was. “Basically, if I punched Steve in the face and he falls over and hits his head he’s broken the record already,” Ricky quips. “Because he’s done it from two foot higher than you. You ******* stupid twonk.” It’s refreshing to see Karl in a moment of laughter at his own expense.
What elevates An Idiot Abroad above the practical jokes and slapstick buffoonery are Karl’s moments of clarity in an increasingly cynical world. Through our time spent with Karl, he becomes more of a “bloke,” and less of a punchline and the butt of Ricky and Stephen’s jokes. In the end, Karl Pilkington doesn’t come out of his experiences as a completely changed man; however the little moments of catharsis are worth savoring for both him and the audience.
In “Desert Island,” Karl displays some fine moments of humanity and introspection scattered throughout worth quoting:
On visiting a Prince Phillip-worshiping tribe, who proudly display pictures of Phillip after having met him in person:
It is weird that they’ve got all these pictures up and they worship him. But at least he exists. Some people worship stuff, these gods and everything, that you don’t even know where they are. You certainly don’t have a postcode for your god. They have. They can write him a letter!
On fully engaging and participating in a tribal dance:
It’s all about keeping happy, basically. If you feel down, have a dance. And that’s true, innit? If you get your heart going, it does make you happier.
On happiness and enjoying oneself:
I’d say happiness is like having a cake. If you had a cake every day, you get sick of that cake. And if you’re happy all the time, you get sick of being happy. That’s a good saying actually… Happiness is like a cake: Have too much of it and you get sick of it.