An Idiot Abroad Recap: ‘Swimming with Dolphins’

In which our intrepid traveler never actually swims with marine mammals. I would normally invoke the “spoiler alert” were this plot twist not so brazenly announced by both the Science Channel’s episode guide and the preview. By the end of episode, Karl indeed foregoes the standard bucket list item of swimming with dolphins for the potentially more fatal option of swimming with a Great White Shark. In reality — this is reality television after all — he is lowered into a cage where sharks can swim around him but he remains stationed in one place. Which is fitting, since the entire premise of the series revolves around adventures happening to Karl, never the result of his own doing. He is usually vocally displeased by the whole ordeal.

But the cracks in the idiot’s veneer are starting to show. Karl, the man who once seemed to prefer the comfort of his own flat above all else, cannot suppress a smile at the prospect of traveling to Australia — even if it means having to hang out with a bunch of dolphins who may or may not have medical healing powers. Maybe it’s a sign that all this travel is starting to have an effect on Karl, or maybe he is just getting lazier about keeping up the whole xenophobe ruse. Neither is a bad thing, really. Tragedy is when the hero remains the same from beginning to end. Change usually makes for great comedy.

Karl is still Karl, but there is just the slightest hint of optimism at the outset of this episode. Since the flight from England to Australia is “so long” — weak logic at best, guys — Karl makes a stopover in Thailand. Surprisingly, he is not terribly annoyed about having to see Thailand. Of course, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have arranged for him to arrive in the middle of Thailand’s New Year Water Festival. So while his driver makes a failed attempt to navigate the traffic, hordes of water-gun-toting Thais pelt the van. Karl is eventually forced out of the van due to said “traffic” — weak logic, but who cares anymore — and into the streets where he is doused with buckets of water, pelted by water guns and has mud rubbed all over his face.

It doesn’t quite compare to his encounter with India’s color festival back in Season 1, but it is always enjoyable to see Karl’s peace of mind disrupted as quickly as possible. Next up on the agenda is a date with one of Bangkok’s infamous ladyboys. Never underestimated the simple-minded misanthrope from Manchester. He settles somewhat comfortably into this assignment, after first dropping the word “tranny.” He marvels at the feminine wiles of his new friend, and waxes philosophic about whether or not he would still love his girlfriend of 17 years were she to suddenly tell him she had a dong. There is little protestation on Karl’s part over getting a pedicure with some other ladyboys at a salon. And for someone who normally whines and moans over every ridiculous costume Ricky and Stephen force on him, Karl puts up a virtual non-fight when the ladyboys give him a full face of makeup, a wig and slide a sparkly dress over him.

The program insinuated there would be some kind of performance involved, but that turned out to be a disappointment. After dolling Karl up the segment ended sort of abruptly and moved on to Thai boxing. If there’s any doubt about the sincerity of Karl’s reactions, the Thai Boxing training scene should put them to rest. He looks quite distressed as he goes through a strenuous regiment, particularly when he can’t do one sit-up without the studio puppy hopping all over him.

Unlike the previous part, the resolution of this segment delivers the goods. The boys back home have arranged for Karl to participate in a Thai boxing match, but blindfolded. This seems like another one of those weak logic moments, a half-baked excuse to make Karl look ridiculous, but in fact blindfolded boxing is apparently a thing in Thailand. There is B-roll of a few rather intense sessions before the main event. It’s pretty impossible not to laugh at Karl fumbling around a boxing ring, hitting nothing but the ground when he occasionally trips. Even the spectators are in on the joke, laughing at his rapid-fire air punches.

There are still hoops to jump through in Thailand before Karl can reach the dolphins only to be told there will be no dolphins. Ricky arranges for Karl to have a post-boxing massage…at a women’s prison. Karl presumes his masseuse is a murderess, and enjoys the experience accordingly. Kudos to the cameraman for grabbing many choice shots of Karl in compromising positions.

He also visits a medical museum in which a rapist murderer’s cadaver is stood up in a baking tray of beans on display in a glass case. And in another part that I, for personal reasons, watched with my hands over my eyes, Karl visits a King Cobra village. He doesn’t actually have to do anything with the cobras other than watch in horror as the handlers get uncomfortably close to the deadly creatures. It should be noted that one of these handlers has lost many fingers due to occupational hazards. Karl certainly noted it, repeatedly.

Fact of the Night: Snakes fart.

At this same site, Karl helps some of the women gather food for lunch and comes under attack by tiny fire ants. What makes this show superior to most travelogues is that instead of these fake, disingenuous set-up shots, the audience is able to see both the good and the bad of what happens when you travel. Bear Grylls might not flinch at a tiny ant bite, but Karl pretty much loses his shit. And most of us would too. It sucks and it is funny and it is all part of the experience. We get to see all of it through Karl.

After visiting some pickpocket monkeys in a monkey village outside of Bangkok, his yellow brick journey leads him to Oz. Where he is finally told what we all knew would happen all along — he must swim with the sharks.

The cage in which he is to be lowered looks fairly unsafe, but we assume the show would not let Karl do anything to compromise his safety. Nonetheless, the guy lowering the cage shows Karl and us pictures from his wounds after a shark attack in that very cage. So, we will live out our fears vicariously through Karl. From the comfort of our living rooms, it is easy to claim we would definitely, absolutely swim with sharks given the chance. But how many of us would or could actually do it? Luckily, the show’s premise forces Karl to do it for us.

And nobody openly embraces cowardice and doubt quite like Karl Pilkington.

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

An Idiot Abroad Recap: ‘Swimming with Dolphins’