There’s a way in which An Idiot Abroad is Karl Pilkington’s revenge. When he participates in podcasts with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, he really does seem like an animal in a cage, being poked by Ricky. In this series, the poking occurs … Pilkington visits the New Seven Wonders of the World, and Gervais/Merchant come up with a variety of torments for him … but Karl is the only one actually there, actually participating, so his unique perspective on the world is offered to us, for the most part, without Gervais’ insane laughter. Pilkington doesn’t seem like an idiot at all in this show. He most definitely seems like a fish out of water, and he has a willingness to blurt out whatever is in his head. But as often as not, I found myself empathizing with him, because I knew I’d be the same.
So, in this episode, he goes to the Great Wall of China. He’s not impressed by the wall, especially when he learns from the guidebook that renovations have been done … how can it be a Wonder if they worked on it in 1980? But it’s in his encounters with Chinese culture that the combination of laughs and insight occurs. He eats toad … he gets a Chinese massage that amounts to having flaming gloves placed on his legs … he uses the public restroom and finds there are no doors on the stalls … and, of course, no one speaks English. We can make fun of his provincialism, but that doesn’t make him an idiot. And the fact is, Pilkington actually does the stuff he dreads. When he visits a family for a meal, he worries that they might feed him something he doesn’t like, and he won’t be able to tell them his tastes. He’s sitting outside when he sees the lady of the house with a bag of something … he quickly realizes it’s a bag of live toads, and she is whomping off their heads, one by one. He really doesn’t want to eat, but he goes to the table, and she forces pieces of toad into his mouth. He can’t really keep them down, and he is really suffering … but he’s doing it, while Gervais and Merchant are back home, laughing. It all makes Karl seem oddly heroic.
I should add that the HD photography is excellent (the series is on the Science Channel). I don’t know that I can exactly recommend the series, but I’ll be back for episode two.