If I had to describe the An Idiot Abroad in three words that aren’t its title, I would call it a travel documentary deconstruction. It’s not just a way of making fun of the show’s star Karl Pilkington, but also the very concept of going to these places and filming them for a television show. If there’s one message the show wants to get across, it’s that Karl Pilkington is an idiot, but if there’s a second it’s that there’s something fundamentally disturbing about this sort of anthropological tourism in general. Karl may be dumb, but in essence there isn’t that much difference between what he’s doing and what you’d see on any other travel show. If anything, he’s more aware of what’s inherently problematic about this type of documentary than nearly any other host. When the show’s at its best, it’s a kind of anti-colonialism, a show about how ridiculous Western beliefs about the rest of world really are—you won’t go an episode of An Idiot Abroad without a group of people laughing uproariously at Karl.
David Foster Wallace wrote that “to be a mass tourist … is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you.” In An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington is the stand-in for all of these negative traits (replace American with British), the only difference being that he’s so unfiltered that he’s willing to voice his disappointment for us to watch on television.
The first season’s concept was for Karl to visit the seven wonders of the world. Of course what actually constitutes a wonder these days is always a bit up for grabs, but the show did a good job choosing geographically distinct places and finding interesting things for Karl to do when he arrived. This season Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant came up with a list of 101 things to do before you die and then let Karl choose seven of them to do. They’re also throwing in as many others along the way that they can, but in essence it’s just an excuse to have him visit interesting places again, preferably ones very different from those we saw in the first season.
Unfortunately this first episode of the second season let me down a bit not because Pilkington wasn’t in wonderful form, but because stylistically it was the show that became the ugly tourist here, even moreso than Pilkington himself. The episode’s concept was for him to go to a desert island and spend the night alone there. Along the way, though, Ricky and Karl have arranged for him to go bungee jumping (which he refuses) and land diving (which he completes, hilariously).
Most of the episode, though, is spent with Karl visiting various tribes, which is always pretty awkward, and I don’t just mean for Karl. As with last season, these tribal scenes are filmed pretty exploitatively. An Idiot Abroad really goes out of its way to exoticize the people Karl meets as much as it possibly can, such that while I was enjoying watching Karl try to cope with his situations, I was spending just as much time feeling bad about the way the show was being made. Yes, Karl is being ridiculous here, but that doesn’t excuse the show from how it depicts these people.
I’m guessing that the episodes of the first season that contained similar footage were popular, thus why the second season kicks off this way. It’s unfortunate, though, because I do believe there’s a way of shooting (and more importantly editing) these scenes that doesn’t, for instance, go out of its way to show people naked and zoom in on their codpieces, a way that’s just as entertaining to watch. Moreso, in fact, since then you can focus on Karl’s ignorance rather than the intrusive filmmaking.
So it’s not a strong start, although also not a trainwreck, just a minor letdown. The land dive itself was pretty incredible, as was what Karl did when he actually did arrive at the desert island. And fortunately the rest of the season looks to be interested in leaving some of the exoticism behind. I’m sure I’m not the only one particularly looking forward to when Karl heads to America later this season.
•One type of idiots according to Karl: Australians.
•”I’ve just heard a noise I’ve never heard come from me.” – You know, I’m pretty sure I’ve even heard that coming from Karl before.
•“Like a little bald wookie.”
•No, Karl, it’s not just a choice between video games and land diving. There is a middleground.
•Enough good things cannot be said about Karl’s land dive. I had to re-watch that.
•Also, Karl talking about it on the phone is I think the second or third time I’ve ever heard him laugh.
•I appreciate the way Ricky and Stephen have now put Karl in a constant state of paranoia. He knows he’s just going to get screwed over constantly in this season, and they don’t care that he knows.
•I’d forgotten how annoying it is that the show frequently subtitles English and not other languages. Actually, I find this to be one of the more offensive things about the show.
•They don’t seem to “worship” Prince Phillip so much as they’re acquaintances of him.
•”I always thought it’d be handy to have a volcano close at hand.” – Wait, WHAT???
•At first I thought maybe they were just pretending that man is the happpiest man on the island, but no, he really is. That guy is so happy it’s awesome..
•“What’s that?” “It’s a leaf.” – Standard Karl conversation.
•Why does Karl bring with him a tote bag rather than a backpack?
•John sure seems to hate having to helpKarl out. I presume that he pissed off his dad recently, thus the terrible assignment.
•I appreciate how much of the footage in this first episode involves Karl being pissy with the camera crew. It makes the entirety of the show feel more real.