You know that cousin you have who’s from a really small town, isn’t a bigot but just doesn’t quite know how to act around people who are different than he is? New things make him uncomfortable and though he tries to hide it, he’s a little bothered by new people. That’s Karl Pilkington. And much like your small town relative, the most uncomfortable place for Karl to go would be Brazil. Compared to Egypt, India and China, Brazil seems really similar to England. It’s not a third world country by any means, and most people speak English and love the same kinds of food. So how do Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant insure that Karl steps out of his comfort zone in Brazil? They send him to places where Karl is sure to feel out of place; a nude beach, a gay beach and a female impersonators’ home.
Although Karl was originally there to see the Christ the Redeemer (which he exclusively refers to as “the jesus thing”), but during the prep with Gervais and Merchant Karl seems more focused on how many “gays” will be in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. He doesn’t seem in any way bothered by gay men as a whole, but more unwilling to participate in whatever sure-to-be distressing gay events Gervais will make him attempt. And sure enough, after a day at the carnivale where he learns to dance and marches in the parade, Karl meets his guide for the rest of the trip: Celso.
First up on Celso and Karl’s agenda is good old-fashioned Brazilian wax. Karl refuses to get rid of the hair on most of his body, but does succumb to the pressure and waxes his lower, lower back. After the manscaping, Celso takes Karl shopping for beach wear. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the beaches of Brazil, you know what that entails. One step away from men’s thongs, Brazilian beachwear is as short and tight as a man can get away with on a beach. Though he doesn’t buy any, Celso helps Gervais and Merchant out by buying Karl a pair as a gift. Next up is a stroll on the beach. And, of course, Celso takes him to the gay section of the beach. Karl asks if Celso is gay, a fact that most people with eyes and ears would be able to tell within seconds of meeting him. Disturbed by the gay beach, Karl tries to save face, be polite, and go back to his hotel.
Karl’s hotel isn’t really a hotel but a hostel. A small house that, due to the carnival, is overbooked with more than a hundred people. And like most people who stay at hostels, every guest other than Karl is in their 20s. After a night of binge drinking, the rowdy residents bunk up in each others beds. Karl is disturbed, by that as well as the underwear that doesn’t belong to him on his bed. He complains that he’d “be happier in an old people’s home, to be honest.” Even though it’s not shown on the show, it’s clear that Karl takes matters into his own hands and finds another hotel. Unfortunately for him, Gervais and Merchant have other plans. Karl gets a call that his new friend Celso has offered up his own home to Karl. Karl is not amused.
After trying to be polite and leaving a message on his home phone, Karl leaves. But the whole interaction between Celso and Karl is what makes the episode great. You can just tell that he’s uncomfortable the whole time. Clearly Karl doesn’t hate gay people, he just isn’t quite sure how to react to them. Like a dog encountering a strange noise, Karl is cautious, cocking his head and trying to work it out in his mind. To his credit, Karl tries so hard to be polite, PC and accommodating to the man who’s home he’s in, but after a while, you can tell he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
An Idiot Abroad runs the inherent risk of becoming one note. There are only so many times you can see Karl bothered by food, toilets or customs that he’s not used to. However, the show manages to avoid this trap by constantly focusing on something new that can bother the easily bothered Karl. In Brazil, that phenomenon is the overt sexuality of people in Brazil. After escaping Celso’s home, Karl tries to relax by going to a secluded beach, one away from crowds and throngs of drinkers and people wearing skimpy swimsuits. Unfortunately for him, it’s a nude beach, and once again, Karl is thrust out of his comfort zone. Much to the viewers delight. It’s no surprise that An Idiot Abroad continues to be the Science Channel’s highest-rated network series.
Joey Slamon lives in Los Angeles where she watches lots of television and produces this show.