Whether Karl Pilkington is the so-called idiot Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant insist on reminding us he is, or he is a brilliant comedic performance artist is pretty irrelevant to the appeal of An Idiot Abroad at this point. Gervais and Merchant made their name and fortune on a hyper-realistic, painfully uncomfortable mockumentary sitcom, it’s only natural they have created a hyper-realistic, at times uncomfortable documentary show. Or is it scripted as well? Best not to trouble yourself over that question too much and just enjoy watching their former radio producer disdainfully grapple with his new role of globe trekker.
Last season they “forced” him to visit the Seven Wonders of the World. This season, Gervais and Merchant — or their producers more likely — have compiled a list of the top 100 popular things people do before they die. In other words, a bucket list. Naturally at first, Karl thinks his two tormentors mean things you do literally right before you die — but his simpleness is quickly rectified by Gervais’ signature cackle.
Karl receives a slight reprieve this season in that he is able to choose which items he will tick off someone else’s bucket list, though that doesn’t stop Gervais and Merchant from needling him at every opportunity. This week, Karl opted to take the Trans-Siberian Express.
The word express is quite misleading. The railway spans nearly the entirety of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and can take weeks to traverse. Karl is assured that there are nice first class cabins with all the modern amenities, so he shouldn’t worry. But Karl is worried, particularly about the toilet situation on the train. This gives him the opportunity to discuss his clever ruse of using long bowel movements to help him escape his girlfriend’s nagging.
Upon his arrival to Moscow, Karl is driven from the airport by a surly, nihilistic taxi driver who has nothing but terrible things to say about the city and Russia. Not one for the silver lining, Karl immediately adopts a gloomy outlook on Russia’s capital. Before long, he is whisked away to an all-male Russian bath, where he cautiously observes a bunch of half-naked men sitting in a lounge area on leather benches. Karl is quick to explain why he would never do that, for fear of his bollocks sticking to the leather. This moment of musing is interrupted by a man presenting him with a towel and a silly-looking hat who escorts him to a Russian banya where he is beaten with the traditional dried branches, and then doused with an icy shower. Karl pines for the simpler days of relaxing facials.
Unimpressed by Moscow, Karl happily bids it adieu to board the Trans-Siberian railway. After a moment of peace in first class, he is told he must move to cabin 6 by two non-English-speaking train attendants. They stand over him while he packs, despite his protestations for privacy, then lead him to a much less peaceful cabin with no private rooms and beds stacked from floor to ceiling. Karl complains that his new conditions are more like a shelf than a bed, and highly unsafe. You can almost hear Gervais and Merchant cracking up in the editing suite.
Along the journey, Karl makes various stops. One includes a Russian space station, where a doctor deems him unfit for a zero gravity flight so he sends up a package of his favorite British candy, Revels, instead. Later, he is instructed to meet a kind of medicine man who “works with nature.” When he arrives, Karl is told to start digging a Karl-sized hole and it takes all of five seconds for the audience and ten seconds for Karl to figure out he is digging his own grave. Surprisingly, being buried alive was probably the least unpleasant activity for Karl. Perhaps because it finally gave him the kind of peace and quite for which he is always yearning.
Back on the train, he meets a “magnet man” who can literally stick objects, metal and not, to his body. It is actually quite amazing and strange, but Karl himself does not stick around for long enough to see just how many crazy tricks this man can do.
A quick stop in Mongolia feels like less of a cultural exchange, and more of an excuse for the show’s creators to force Karl into a ridiculous outfit. Or rather, the outfit, a traditional Mongolian wrestling uniform, isn’t itself ridiculous — but Karl being Karl is able to make it look ridiculous by insisting on wearing his boxers under the bikini-type bottom. The family with which he is staying requests he participate in a traditional wrestling match on behalf of them. After a slight protestation — Karl is learning to choose his battles — he relents and agrees to wrestle. The next day at the event, Karl is quickly taken down and back on the train. This particular stop felt slightly shoehorned into the episode, but was entertaining nonetheless.
Once back on the train, Karl realizes he has switched routes onto the Trans-Manchurian line and is headed straight for Beijing. For those of you who did not see the first season, Karl hated Beijing. He wasn’t impressed by the Great Wall and was horrified by the city life. This time around he has the mature realization that this might be his opportunity to give China another chance.
So he does what anyone would in his situation – he visits a village in the mountains made entirely for little people. Who actually constructed and ordained this commune is never really revealed, but it is a kind of tourist attraction where the citizens all wear costumes and put on shows for non-little tourists. Initially delighted by the spectacle, Karl phones the only little person he knows — and star of the upcoming Merchant-Gervais produced sitcom Life’s Too Short — Warwick Davis. For a crossover promotional moment, it feels pretty genuine. Davis expresses absolute horror that a village like this exists — calling it segregation and exploitation. He reprimands Karl for going at all. Karl just doesn’t get it.
Or, maybe Karl does get it, and he’s just playing the role of the simpleton from Manchester. Does it really matter? In the world of travelogues that don’t involve excessive eating or purchasing a vacation home — An Idiot Abroad is as good as it gets. It’s all one big joke, after all; and no matter what side of it you’re on you will still probably laugh if you like the Gervais-Merchant style of comedy.
Next week Karl swims with the dolphins. And by dolphins I mean sharks.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.