An Idiot Abroad - “Desert Island”

An Idiot Abroad - “Desert Island”

For fans of The Ricky Gervais Show podcast, seeing Karl Pilkington in action last year in An Idiot Abroad was a joy to behold. Unleashed from the studio into unfamiliar worlds, Pilkington faced horror after horror…at least from his perspective. The antagonist of this travelogue, if there is such a thing as an antagonist, was the concept of “change.” Anything different from Pilkington’s perspective was viewed as the enemy, leaving him room to make a myriad of enemies across the world as he visited its Seven Wonders. With those all checked off his itinerary, it seemed as if the show had run its course as a one-off series featuring a man who seemed to have no business ever leaving his flat in the first place.

Well, An Idiot Abroad is back on Science Channel tonight, this time with a “bucket list” approach to seeing amazing sights and having incredible experiences before you die. Of course, as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant note early on, this isn’t Karl’s bucket list: it’s simply one culled from various sources and compiled into one massive menu from which Karl can choose. Early episodes feature such options such as riding the Trans-Siberian Express, seeing the glaciers before they melt, or going on an African safari. Tonight’s premiere features Karl spending a night on his own desert island.

Of course, the premise of Abroad is that Gervais/Merchant undercut Karl’s attempt at happiness every step of the way before allowing him to actually achieve his goal. Surely Karl knows this by now, which removes a bit of the fun from the first year. Whereas then he was already on his trip before realizing the entire endeavor was a practical joke, now he goes into each excursion preparing for the worst to happen. This isn’t a complaint about the show’s veritas, nor is this a way to once again bring up the tired discussion of whether or not Pilkington is putting on airs whenever in public view. Rather, it’s a way in which to reframe the perspective one needs to enjoy this season.

If last season was about Pilkington slowly realizing he was travelling through a worldwide haunted house designed to scare the hell out of him and him alone, this season is about him waiting at every single moment for the floor to fall out beneath him. Each trip is planned with the meticulousness that would be envied by the people behind the machinations in David Fincher’s The Game. Getting to spend a night on a desert island means running a gauntlet of prior tasks that set Pilkington’s teeth on edge. If Gervais/Merchant learn that their compatriot doesn’t like bungee jumping, well, they are going to send him to the island in the South Pacific that essentially invented the sports. But even the creature comforts Pilkington enjoys occasionally are marked with fear that, at any instant, something horrible is going to happen to him. How he doesn’t fall over dead from stress is something of a miracle.

Of course, it’s his own predisposition that makes him such an easy target. Since he perceives anything foreign (ie, outside of his everyday sphere) as inherently untrustworthy, he is by default closed off to any type of out-of-the-box experience. So of course he’s upset while spending time on the “happiest place on earth,” Vanuatu, where he sees the sport of “land diving.” What’s land diving? Think “bungee jumping,” only replace the bungee cord with indigenous vines, have participants jump off an edifice that looks like it came from Skull Island, and you have the idea. It’s an absolutely arresting visual, one that speaks of centuries of cultural influence and continuity. But Karl can’t be bothered to try it, eventually settling for leaping five feet off the thirty-meter structure and treating it like he’s somehow won the Olympic gold medal for the decathlon.

That celebration, while unearned, is also the rare instance in which this apparently miserable man is actually happy. When he recounts his less-than-inspiring tale to Gervais that night, Ricky notes that had he punched Merchant in the face, Merchant’s head would have traversed a further distance to the ground than Pilkington’s head had during his land diving experience. Pilkington earnestly and vociferously laughs at this comparison, and there are moments sprinkled throughout these early episodes in which you can see someone finally giving himself over to the process rather than fighting it at every phase. Should Pilkington turn into a hearty, ready-for-anything explorer, the show would cease to be. That would be a shame. But certainly, a tiny bit of personal growth can’t hurt, especially when said growth leads to a cathartic release for both him and the audience.

Such openness leads to one of the more remarkable sequences of tonight’s premiere, when he visits a tribe that worships Prince Philip. The tribe hangs pictures of Philip on a clothes hangar that stretches across the village. Does this experience change Karl? No, but it’s certainly an experience all the same. And while the puppet masters Gervais and Merchant certainly have some anarchy on their mind, they also help Karl confront things he would normally avoid. Usually, such confrontation ends with complaining and a migraine. But every once in a while, it produces a beautifully human moment. As funny as the show is (and it’s indeed just as funny as the first season), the moments in which Pilkington actually embraces the trip, and by extension embraces life, truly really stand out this season.

Stray observations…

  • Seeing Karl’s bulbous belly stick out of his shirt after being carried around like a hero for his five-foot land jump might have produced my biggest belly laugh of 2012 so far.
  • There’s apparently a tribe that names everything starting with the letter “N.” Now you know.
  • At one point, Karl goes arseboarding. I’ll just let you come up with your own image before seeing it yourself.
  • If you think Gervais passes up the chance to make a Castaway reference, you’re fooling yourself.
  • “It’s bit something that Obama would say, isn’t it?”
  • “If I get there, and there’s some guy with his knob in a wicker…I’ll be annoyed.”

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