The seven wonders of the world have never appeared so un-wonderful. This week, Karl Pilkington goes to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids. And, as per usual, Karl finds the actual wonder to be the least exciting part of his visit. “Exciting” may not be the right word, as Karl is almost never excited about anything, but like every other episode, the visit to the wonder seems to be Karl’s least favorite part. “The idea is that I would see these places and get blown away. I am getting blow away, just by the wind,” mumbles Karl. What was prominent in this episode, however, was Ricky Gervais’ role in making Karl miserable. Unlike other episodes where Karl is miserable just because that’s the way he is, the Egypt episode seems to highlight Gervais’ evil plans behind the scene. Starting with Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s role in choosing the hotel room.
Karl’s room is infested with fleas, has a mattress as hard as a rock and is adorned with awful flourecent lights that “does [his] head in.” It isn’t until the end of the episode that we learn that it was actually the worst room in the hotel; a fact uncovered when Karl wanders over to the room right next to his, which may not be four star quality but is certainly better than Karl’s room. In previous episodes, Karl plays voicemails from Gervais and Merchant, usually focusing on his next assignment. Also prominent in the voicemails and calls is Gervais’ signature laugh, almost exclusively at Karl’s expense. But throughout the Egypt episode, we were also treated to some of the many text messages that Karl gets from Gervais. And instead of checking in to see how he’s doing, these texts seem to be either a ridiculous photo of Gervais making a funny face, or more simply just the amount of money that it costs Karl to open each text message on his international phone (70p was all that was in one text, infuriating Pilkington).
Gervais and Merchant play a crucial role in planning Karl’s meals and guides for the trips. This has been hinted at in previous episodes, but is highlighted in Egypt. It’s no surprise that the producers or a reality show pre-plan all the locations and activities of its host or contestants. But what makes An Idiot Abroad so fantastic is that those in charge just want to make their host as uncomfortable as possible. You don’t feel that Gervais or Merchant are doing this to be mean, they just want to make the funniest travel show ever. An example is when Karl gets a message from Merchant explaining where he will eat that evening. Upon arriving at the restaurant, it’s clear that the owner was expecting Karl and was instructed to give him the most unsettling thing on the menu. While worrying that he will be served hummus or couscous, the owner of the restaurant says he was told to give Karl the “house special”. Which turns out to be sautéed penis and testicles. A far cry from what Rachel Ray or Samantha Brown would be served at various restaurants on their shows.
Of course, the episode also lets Karl’s misery shine through on its own, independent of Gervais and Merchant’s meddling. He finds the pyramids to be more of a construction hazard than an amazing feat of mans ingenuity. “It’s like a game of Jenga that’s got out of hand.” The flea market that he wanders through is filled with people who try to sell him whatever they have, which makes him wonder how anyone in Egypt gets anything done. He finds the Egyptian museum “over the top” with too much gaudy gold statues. And the camel ride sufficiently annoys him. Karl only seems to find two things in Egypt acceptable; dancing on a Nile cruise and spending time with a couple who believes the pyramids were built with the help of aliens. If you’ve ever heard stories about Karl’s mother on the podcast, then it comes as no surprise that Karl would immediately bond with the social misfits who believe in extra terrestrial life building the pyramids. Or maybe it’s that he just appreciates those who don’t fit in, much like himself.
Joey Slamon lives in Los Angeles where she watches lots of television and produces this show.