Like many fans of An Idiot Abroad, I was led to the show through Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. A basic familiarity with the pair is embedded in the show’s format. Not only is Karl only a pseudo-celebrity because of them, but since Karl is doing the show at their behest, it’s always had the conceit that he needs to continually check in with them for more information about what he’s doing next. While it’s the type of silliness and fake hurdle that you’ll see on pretty much any reality TV show, it manages to work because Karl himself believes so much in the importance of these calls. Also, because even with thousands of miles of distance between them, Ricky and Stephen manage to get on Karl’s nerves.
These phone calls usually just add small moments of humor to An Idiot Abroad, but in the second season Karl has begun caring less and less what he says on the phone, which comes to a head in “Meet a Gorilla.” On his circuitous route to the gorilla, Karl is taken to another bungee jump, and Ricky tells him that if he does so Ricky will pay for five small houses in South Africa through a charity. Karl, who’s been going off about how much he gives to charities, is put in a hard place. He’s not nearly as wealthy as Ricky so he can’t just outbid his friend on paying for the houses himself (after all, that’s why he’s on the show), yet he truly doesn’t want to go bungee jumping. Karl’s solution: flat-out, insane lying.
This adds tension to the entire rest of the episode, especially when Karl is goading Ricky about whether he’s paid for the houses yet. No, the stakes aren’t that high, but it’s still entertaining to watch a person deal for a length of time with a lie that’s certain to be revealed. This bungee lie is just a nice framing device for a very good episode overall, one that largely avoids the pitfalls that we saw in “Desert Island.”
An Idiot Abroad may be partially about getting one person culturally sensitized, but the show itself has had its problems with racist depictions. Part of this I would guess comes from it being made in Britain, and partially for getting what the show’s crew considers “good footage,” but that same material has felt exploitative. Here, though, the sort of colonializing outsider aspect of things was flipped on its head. When Karl deals with a tribal group here, rather than being served as the guest of honor, he serves them (and wow, he makes even my cooking look good). The episode’s footage of African slums felt matter-of-fact rather than sensationalistic. There was a certain sense in the episode that this is the way things are, so deal with it. Part of this came from Karl, but the footage matched his dialogue well. He was an idiot, but for once the show didn’t implicate its audience with his idiocy in belittling the various cultures he visited.
The one aspect of the episode that was a bit disappointing came when he actually reached the gorillas. Karl is obsessed with “monkeys,” and I would’ve liked to see and hear more of his reaction. This goes on hand with the season’s pattern of making the culmination of Karl’s journeys short and anti-climactic, but that felt less like a poignant piece of filmmaking here and more like the episode just ran out of time.
•Wait, so why does Karl immediately decide he has to be nude?
•Oh, and once again I want to voice my complaint that the show needs to stop subtitling people speaking in English. It drives me nuts, and was the most culturally insensitive thing we saw in the episode.
•I really liked Karl’s talk with the kids. He’s always surprisingly good with children, and was great considering that he was basically told, “You’re giving a talk about the topic we just told you. And… go!”
•“I’m single-handedly causing the world’s population problem. Because I’m saving everyone.” – I don’t even know where to start with this one.
•I do wish I could hear Suzanne’s reaction to Karl’s hippo comment.
•”Everything’s been said that can be said about a gorilla.” – Karl’s version of the literature of exhaustion.