An Idiot Abroad Recap: ‘Whale Watching’

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At the mid-point of Season 2, I found myself actually agreeing with Karl for the first time. Each week, I am usually filled with the greenest envy of his opportunities and bemusement at his inability to appreciate them. Turns out “whale watching” was nearly a dealbreaker for both he and I. In fact, where we differed was Karl actually wanting to go whale watching in the first place. Anyone whose childhood involved being dragged onto a tourist boat somewhere off the coast of New England with the promise of possibly seeing a whale off in the distance, knows how dreadfully boring and seasickness-inducing this activity is. A whale’s majesty is best enjoyed on the television. If you are looking for that in this particular episode, much like Karl you will only find disappointment.

I am not saying this episode is bad. It has some classic Karl-bservations, including what the politically correct term for a Leprachaun might be (a gnome, naturally), why one must conserve their energy in the arctic (to wrestle polar bears) and comparing a couple of elderly Inuit women to “the Eskimo version of Golden Girls.” There is even a bonus contribution from one of Karl’s snow guides — a pun-laden song about arctic animals and love.

But instead of lush tropical jungles or vast deserts, the entire episode features the frigid, icy landscape of Alaska. The sheer saturation of whiteness in this episode combined with the unsavory tasks Karl must perform makes it harder to laugh at him and easier to just feel sorry for him. Whose bucket list really involves floating around in glacier water and having to poo into a MacGyver-ed napkin pouch while standing outside in subzero temperatures?

These really aren’t the worst of Karl’s plight in Alaska. It is a toss-up between him assisting a septic collector — the human waste is collected into an inappropriately named receptacle known as the “honey-bucket” — or an overnight excursion on a working fishing boat where he must where a jacket coated in fish oil and chop up octopi. The latter activity also involved battling some hard-to-watch seasickness. Oh, and that is how he finally gets to see whales. Or the tail of a whale, which he views while splayed out on his back at the bow. Standing up only worsens his nausea.

Not exactly the usual irreverent laugh riot. Even Ricky Gervais does not cackle quite so much on his regular calls to Karl. He tries to remind Karl to stop complaining, but I found myself seeing Karl’s side of the argument a little more clearly. After all, at the onset of his journey Karl hikes miles through deep snow only to arrive at a cabin with no toilet and little insulation. And while riding alongside an Ice Road Trucker en route to one of the northernmost towns in the arctic sounds pretty fun, the experience is tempered by the trucker’s overall negative reviews of the place. Debbie Downer, much?

While in Barrow, this northern Inuit town, Karl does not get to see whale, but he gets to eat some, along with frozen Caribou. Even the food isn’t warm in Alaska. One of the elderly ladies takes Karl on a snowmobile ride across the icy plains to Barrow Point. It is beautiful, but monochrome — leaving Karl to wonder aloud why the program is in HD, or even color. While most of us can’t claim to have seen the northernmost point of the Arctic, it is easy to understand why the overall grey and bleakness of his trip overshadowed the uniqueness of his experience.

One step closer to seeing whales, Karl observes massive whalebones lying around the town. But before he can see one in the flesh, he must collected human waste for the day under the auspice of “understanding the everyday Alaskan worker.” Since he is so far north, it stands to reason he must try his hand at dogsledding. This is the closest activity to an actual bucket list item portrayed in the episode, but already Karl seems a bit more than fed up. He can’t control the fast dogs, and a lot of expletives and frustration ensue.

Yet another step before he can see whales is Stephen Merchant’s insistence that Karl see the glaciers before they melt away. When Karl discovers he cannot simply observe them from a boat, but must slip into a wet suit and ride out into the water in a small inflatable raft — his defeatism is complete. With little protest, he’s plopped in the icy water where he floats around like “a bag of crisps.” What saved this whole segment from just being plain sad was another classic Karl-ism: “I’m energy efficient cause I’m bald.”

Which brings us to the boat. Perhaps because he is so darn cold, Karl does not act the least bit surprised when he finds out he will not be seeing whales on a cozy tourist liner. But the rocking of the boat combined with his assigned job of chopping octopi and other fish really drives Karl to his breaking point. If he was faking his dissatisfaction with the situation then hand that man an EGOT.

Much like T.S. Eliot’s end of the world, the episode closed with a whimper not a bang. Karl and we saw the tail of a whale, and that was about it. Luckily, next week we are in for some warmer climates as Karl travels to South Africa to do his own take on Gorillas in the Mist.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.