With the exception of Paul Theroux’ stuff, travel writing is mostly sanitized hype. That’s even more true for travel TV; it’s basically a long-form commercial for the lands of color and contrast that want you to visit and spend your money. The exception being Ricky Gervais’ “An Idiot Abroad.” It gets as nasty and snarky as Theroux’ writing, but there’s a difference.
Theroux is the savvy traveler who gives you his unvarnished POV of foreign lands. This includes his sneers at disgusting crap, but also includes a sense of wonder. Theroux is curious. He wants to see/know/feel/hear/taste the planet, good and bad. Karl Pilkington, the hero of the show, as the title implies, is an idiot. He doesn’t want to travel. He wants to watch telly at his flat back in the UK. Instead, through bribe of money or some form of blackmail, Gervais and X are sending him around the planet to places he hates. It is, as Gervais puts it, an extended practical joke. But, of course, it ain’t.
X is Gervais’ clueless character from The Office, a little dumber, a little more working class, but essentially the same. His reactions are prejudicial, parcochial, nrrow, unimaginative. And you’d have to be an idiot to think this Idiot was unscripted. The writers of his script, clearly, aren’t idiots.
Bssically, this clueless Brit (a real-life Homer Simpson, according to Gervais) wanders the planet in slack-jawed bafflement at the dirty, smelly brown people he encounters and their rotten customs, religions dwellings and cities. On the face of it, his disgust (at toads on a stick in China, or whatever) is what we laugh at. He’s a British Archie Bunker reacting to stuff he doesn’t get. (Them there chinks eat anything on a stick!) But, of course, that’s a buckshot prophylactic. Full of holes, eh? An Indian fakir demonstrate his command of yoga by yanking out his penis, rolling it on a cane like a piece of taffy, and then pulling it behind his legs and halfway up his arse. X is agog, and we laugh. We laugh too. Not at him. Or with the fakir. We’re bloody well laughing at him.
It’s see-the-freak travel documentary. Making us see it from the point of view of an Idiot (we supposedly sneer at) disguises this. In a further disguise, Gervais and his pal are putting the poor X through hell—giggling at every pitchfork shoved in his ass, with the giggles bullies make. It’s mean spirited, sadistic ande clever. X is a stranger and afraid in a world he never made. The Gods of the Show, supposedly, hate him. They call him an idiot – right in the title. But we sympathize with him, feel for him, put ourselves in his shoes. Yeah, there are times he spouts some stupidity and we sneer. But most of the time we don’t. He’s a victim of a vast practical joke. Gervais and X are picking on him. Our hearts go out to him, yeah – but go back a second. How are Gervais and X picking on him?
By throwing him into the dirty world of brown people and shoving his face in their bixzarre customs, lack of hygiene, and generally rotten way of life.
D discovers that a Chinese public toilet is a hole in the floor you squat over, without benefit of toilet paper. He’s disgusted.