Traveling to a different country can be a truly rewarding experience, opening the mind to a new culture and even new ways of thinking about things. It’s a chance to sample cuisine you’ve never tried before or speak in a language you’ve never spoken before.
Then again, some people are not affected in such a positive way by this sort of experience; Karl Pilkington is one of those people, and his discomfort in traveling forms the basis for the new Science Channel travel program, An Idiot Abroad.
Karl Pilkington’s name may not be a familiar one, but fans of Ricky Gervais will have long been acquainted with Pilkington. Karl Pilkington was the producer for The Ricky Gervais radio show that aired on the satellite channel Xfm London from 2001-2005; he would become the central focus for the podcasts that followed, with Ricky Gervais and his writing partner Stephen Merchant talking to Pilkington to get his unique take on life. Gervais, Merchant, and Pilkington can be seen in cartoon form on the HBO series The Ricky Gervais Show. An Idiot Abroad originally aired on Sky 1 in the United Kingdom and made its American debut on January 22, 2011.
The central premise of An Idiot Abroad is that Pilkington is a man not very comfortable with traveling outside the United Kingdom. Stephen Merchant wants Pilkington to broaden his mind through travel, while Ricky Gervais wants him to be miserable. To this point in the show, it appears Gervais is getting his wish.
Each episode opens with Ricky and Stephen briefing Karl on where he’s going to be traveling to and which of the Seven Natural Wonders he will be seeing. This is typically met with Karl’s unenthusiastic response (he’s not a big fan of anything described as a “wonder.”)
Next, Karl takes off for his destination, and we get to follow him around from one situation to another as he explores the country he’s visiting. It would be a short program if Karl went straight to the wonder, so Gervais and Merchant send Karl around to do different things, whether it’s learning how to wrestle in Mexico, getting hair removed in Brazil, or getting his fortune read in China.
Karl’s accommodations for each city he visits tend to be uncomfortable, situated in a part of town where it’s constantly loud, with no privacy. And while many travelers can relate with his discomfort, it’s hard not to watch and wonder if one is meant to laugh at Karl, or with him. There’s an uneasy feeling that Karl is being exploited for laughs (and Ricky Gervais certainly makes it clear that getting laughs is the only reason for sending Karl abroad), although it’s certainly possible that Karl is in on the joke. Whatever the case may be, watching An Idiot Abroad it’s clear that Karl, for the most part, is not enjoying himself on these trips to the point of physical exhaustion from lack of sleep.
Karl keeps in touch with Gervais and Merchant via phone calls and text messages, where they update Karl on his itinerary and to see how he’s doing. They also frequently add things to this schedule that Karl didn’t anticipate and isn’t all that interested in doing.
By the end of each episode Karl has made it to the Natural Wonder to which he’s been sent, and he’s frequently less than impressed. In Brazil, for instance, where he went to see the Christ The Redeemer statue (which he kept calling “that Jesus thing”), he was more impressed with the helicopter ride he took to see it than with the statue itself. In viewing the pyramids of Egypt, Karl doesn’t see what the big deal was in building the pyramids (“It looks like a game of Jenga that’s got out of hand!”). It seems natural to think that there will be viewers who will have a similar reaction if placed into the same situation.
That’s the charm of the show: an ordinary guy being put into a situation with which he’s not comfortable, and seeing his seemingly genuine reactions. As exciting as travel can be, most people can relate to the problems enduring a long plane ride or putting up with less than comfortable lodging and strange food.
Despite his frequent complaints, Karl Pilkington is an engaging host and he does appear to be doing his best with each situation in which he’s put. Whether or not the series concludes with the broadening of his mind (as Stephen Merchant hopes) remains to be seen. A second season is in the works, so it’s possible Karl is at least open to the possibility of having his horizons expanded.
An Idiot Abroad airs Saturday at 10:00 p.m. on The Science Channel.