The most common statement made about “An Idiot Abroad” is that “You either find Karl Pilkington hilarious or you don’t.” There’s no doubt into which camp Ricky Gervais falls. In the introduction to each episode of the series, Gervais howls at every utterance Karl makes until he nearly drowns in his own spittle. Karl, you see, is a “moron.” This is Gervais’ word for Karl, not mine, and he intends it as a term of endearment to a man he considers a friend. After years of working with said moron on his radio show (where Pilkington was a producer who became a popular on-air figure), Gervais is utterly convinced that it would be spittle-howlingly hilarious to set Karl Pilkington loose on the world and record the results for posterity.
Karl Pilkington does not actually appear to be a moron, he simply comes off as being the least curious man in the world. He has his small comfort zone in life (whatever he’s grown up with in England is right; everything else is wrong and stupid), and has absolutely no interest in anything else in creation. Therefore, Gervais (and his partner-in-crime Stephen Merchant) decided to send the least interested man in the world to visit the most interesting places on Earth, the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, and mine the humor generated by the contrast between myopic sight-seer and glorious sights-seen. Watch as Karl stands atop the Great Wall of China, and wonders why anyone would want to see a bunch of shabby stones. Watch as Karl listens to the story of the Taj Mahal’s elaborate construction, and thinks it must be a bad idea to go to a structure that took so darn long to build. Watch Karl pretend to pinch the Pyramid’s nipple. And so on.
Karl is the sort of guy who would go to Egypt and happily settle in at the local McDonald’s until his plane was ready to leave for home, but Gervais and Merchant poke and prod Karl to do all sorts of tourist-y things he couldn’t care less about, with cameras in tow to record his reactions, which range from boredom to bored contempt. As much as this seems to crack Gervais up, I fall into the other camp. I don’t get Karl at all. It’s not as if he’s a font of “so dumb they’re hilarious” observations about his misadventures (“Karl quotes” abound online, but I don’t find any of them funny). He simply wears a blandly hostile expression wherever he goes, and we’re supposed to laugh at how sullen he looks in the shadow of remarkable locations like the Pyramids or Machu Picchu, or at how he looks he’s ready to blow chunks when he watches Chinese diners snacking on scorpions and toads.
The idea might work for a three minute segment in a variety show, but watching 43 minutes of Karl wandering forlornly around each of these exotic destinations, and whining about how all the locals crap in holes in the floor instead of decent toilets (Karl’s all-consuming concern and, admittedly, one I can understand) gets tiresome very, very quickly. Every location blends together. Karl is the same in China, in India, in Mexico, and so on, the Little Englander who just wants to have a nice, clean poo. That’s intended to be part of the humor as well, but, well, to each his own Karl.
“An Idiot Abroad” has been quite a success, however. After its 2010 debut on Sky1 in the UK where it became the most network’s most popular program in years, it played on the Science Channel in the U.S. (because nothing says science like Karl Pilkington) to favorable ratings as well. “An Idiot Abroad” was intended as a one-off idea, self-contained by its Seven Wonders format, but its ratings were strong enough to green light a second series (not included in this set) in which Karl was sent to perform “Bucket List” tasks, stunts and side trips throughout the world. Karl was a minor cult figure on the old Ricky Gervais show, and “An Idiot Abroad” has only expanded his legend.
NOTE: I did not see the Science Channel broadcasts, but I gather that they were censored. These episodes are uncensored and there’s probably not a big difference but there’s a bit of cursing and a bit of dangling anatomy from time to time.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are rather sharp. Since they were shot in the UK, I would have guessed these were taken from PAL sources, but if they were, they don’t look like it. There’s no artifacting/haloing evident, and the level of detail is pretty strong throughout. There are some beautiful shots of landscapes and, of course, the Seven Wonders, and it all looks pretty good here.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks aren’t particularly dynamic, and don’t need to be. For those that have trouble with the British accents, English subtitles are provided. Most dialogue is clearly mixed though sometimes location sound can get a bit messy.
I’m not a fan of the menu format on these two discs. The episodes are marked only by postcards, no words for titles. It’s not that hard to guess that you’re clicking on something that looks like it’s related to “China” or “Egypt” but the pictures are tiny and not always clear. Is this icon-only format intended for idiots abroad? In any case, Disc One includes the episodes set in China, India, Jordan (and Israel) and Mexico. Disc Two takes Karl to Egypt, Brazil, and Peru.
Disc One includes a Preview Show (22 min.) thatcan be accessed by clicking on the picture of Ricky, Stephen and Karl.
The same icon on Disc Two will take you to the “Karl Goes Home” wrap-up episode (44 min.) which looks back on this epic series, and finds Karl largely unchanged by his experiences. Under “Other Stuff” you will find eight Deleted Scenes each ranging from 1-3 minutes apiece and a Stills Gallery.
You either get Karl Pilkington or you don’t. I don’t. If you do, you’ll probably laugh yourself seeing watching Karl stare blankly at the world’s most amazing sights. This set is mostly no-frills, but the episodes are cleanly presented and it’s not like there’s anything there that demands a high-def presentation though I understand there is a European region Blu-ray set should you be so inclined.