The third season of An Idiot Abroad debuts tonight on Science Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern.
How much cultural capital does Ricky Gervais have left to spend? Given the truncated nature of the latest installment of An Idiot Abroad, the answer seems to be “less with each passing year”. Previous installments of this travel show/practical joke hybrid took Gervais’ former radio producer Karl Pilkington to the Seven Wonders of the World and a wide-ranging trip to check off elements from a bucket list, this go around is a three-episode excursion in which Pilkington follows Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to China. The biggest change for this season, however, is that Pilkington has a travelling partner this time around in the form of Warwick Davis.
Davis’ inclusion is both a shot in the arm for the series but also serves to highlight just how staged An Idiot Abroad is. On one level, it’s probably extremely silly to quibble with the “reality” of these proceedings. After all, each step of the journey is meticulously planned in order to both reveal the majesty of the world and Pilkington’s disgust at anything that exists beyond the shallow parameters of his everyday life. Whether or not you think Pilkington is actually the way he comes off in his experiences with Gervais is beside the point when it comes to the veracity of the programming. While the first installment of this show offered a series of spontaneous moments inside the constrictions of the overly produced scenarios, those are long gone by this point. Both Pilkington the Man and/or Pilkington the Performer understand what will happen, and more importantly, how that entity is expected to react to certain stimuli.
Having Warwick Davis alongside him offers up both some welcome respite from last season’s redundant feel, but also augments the level of performativity on display. At times, Davis acts like a tonic, a balm that combats Pilkington’s cynicism with wide-eyed wonder. At other times, it seems like Davis is performing scenes from a new season of the ill-advised, mean-spirited Life’s Too Short. Wonder is replaced by navel gazing, with Davis’ constant mention of his Hollywood career threatening to turn an already suspect reality into a purely scripted travelogue. Having Pilkington’s true nature called into play is slightly frustrating but par for the course. Having Davis pile onto that feels like overkill. (“Remember, Karl: Dignity!” Davis proclaims at one point…only to instantly stumble while trying to get out of a boat.)
The joys of this installment of An Idiot Abroad come not from the places they visit (many of which have already been seen on this show), but from the small pockets of humanity with which Pilkington and Davis come into contact. There’s a difference between trying to affect an outcome and creating the conditions in which amusing/surprising things can unfold. Big set pieces, such as their involvement in a Bollywood film or a mid-sized circus, fall flat. But the smaller ones are often fascinating, specifically because they are the ones that can be least controlled by the macro structure of the series. A masquerade ball in Venice introduces the pair to something called “The Pleasure Machine”. An attempt to see the sunrise over the River Ganges brings them into contact with a xenophobic monk. A Macedonia prayer circle turns into a spectacle neither are prepared to see.
One thing the pair do see at one point are The Spider Sisters, conjoined twins that Pilkington drags Davis to see during their time in India. Pilkington’s fascination with “otherness” has been a hallmark of his interactions with Gervais and Stephen Merchant (the latter of whom is absent from this series) since the time the three started podcasted together. Having Davis around this time means that Pilkington is constantly in the presence of someone that fascinates him. But that fascination, while seemingly innocent, also produces offensive actions as well as statements throughout the three episodes. The shock value of these instances is partially, if not mostly, the reason for Gervais to put the pair together in the first place. There are times in which the joke is clearly on Pilkington, whose stupidity we are meant to mock. But other times, Davis turns into the very spectacle he himself loathes, often against his will. He eventually ends up onstage with The Spider Sisters and Pilkington, and you’ll probably hate yourself for laughing as much as you will when you see what unfolds.
That mixture is welcome, but also fraught with peril. The idea behind putting these two together would be sound, if the goal was either an attempt at elevating Pilkington’s world view or simply using Davis as an onscreen device to bring Karl’s prejudices to the surface. Instead, the show never knows which way it wants to go. That slightly schizophrenic approach works when Pilkington and David trade off between optimistic and skeptic, depending on their present condition. But it fails when the show isn’t sure if it wants to celebrate Davis or denigrate him. (The pair stays with gypsies while in Macedonia, for the seeming sole purpose of having them constantly try to rub Warwick’s head for luck.) That’s a case where the show can’t have it both ways, as much as if would like to do so. The three hours that make up the duo’s excursion isn’t rife with these troublesome moments, but there are enough to give one slight pause.
All of this leads to the ultimate question: whom is this show meant to entertain? Is it for the audience, or for Gervais himself? As in seasons past, he serves as a disembodied dungeon master, offering up hints of glorious experiences ahead only to pull the rug out from Pilkington, Davis, or both upon arrival. But this time around, he also scolds Pilkington for bullying Warwick into doing things against his will. It would be a fine gesture, except the entire premise of An Idiot Abroad is based around Gervais bullying Pilkington into taking these trips in the first place. Worrying about Davis potentially floating into space during a helium-balloon based excursion straight out of Pixar's Up isn’t Gervais being a good human being. It’s him being either selective about his morality or in fact doing Davis a disservice due to his short stature.
All of these musings imply far more thought than anyone involved with this program probably put into the proceedings. But more thought would have produced something more than a farcical travelogue. There’s nothing wrong with that. But by putting so much interesting subtext onscreen, then refusing to actually engage with it on anything besides a surface level, An Idiot Abroad is a missed opportunity. Some missed opportunities roll off you. But with so many interesting ways in which this third (and more than likely final) iteration could have gone, it stings a bit more. The end of the series represents the end of the literal road for Pilkington and Davis. What it represents for the career of Gervais will be have to be determined a little bit further on down the line.
- While the trip only lasts three episodes, Sky 1 aired a fourth episode that served as a commentary, with Gervais, Pilkington, and Davis talking over footage of the third hour. It’s unclear if that episode will air here and simply wasn’t provided for review, or will not air at all. The grade above serves as a grade both for tonight's episode and the short series as a whole.
- Those looking for Pilkington’s askew perspective on life will still find many quotable moments. There’s nothing on the level of his infamous “I could eat a knob at night” quote from the first podcast series. But as a critique of art, "If there was a fat, ginger cat squatting in the corner, it would take the edge off someone getting clubbed to death,” works pretty well. I could drop another dozen quotes on that level, but that would ruin the majority of the series’ fun.
- One running gag that works: Karl is perpetually annoyed that Warwick doesn’t ever suffer similar gastrointestinal problems to his.
- Even if the Bollywood segment is belabored, the trailer for the film they work on, Changari, is a bit of comic gold. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised that the film itself was Argo-ed in order to make Karl dance like a fool, but that’s fine.
- Karl’s typical line of inquiry for The Spider Sisters: “If you only have one stomach, who eats?”