"You make chickens and monkeys in your stories cleverer than you."
That's just one of the many ways the brilliant Ricky Gervais informs Karl Pilkington of how stupid he sounds in HBO's newest series, the improperly named "Ricky Gervais Show." While Gervais is THE name audiences will recognize, the true star of the shoe is not the talented man behind "The Office" nor his co-creator and partner in crime, the equally funny, Stephen Merchant. The mad genius of the show is the Karl Pilkington or as Ricky loves to describe him, "the round headed, little chimp." Pilkington is a true enigma, coming to fame nearly a decade ago while working on Gervais and Merchant's radio show on XFM in London. Originally the show's producer, Gervais and Merchant soon realized that Karl had some very unique views on life. Those early XFM shows should dispel all accusations that Karl is creation. The show was live and spontaneous, and Karl never wavered from his deadpan views, which often reached absurd extremes that no actor alive could continue week and week out without cracking up once.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Gervais would make history releasing "The Ricky Gervais Show" podcast both in digital and physical form. Guinness honored the trio with a world record for most downloads and soon, as a result of the income gained (which apparently all or most goes to Karl), Karl was able to quit his job, left with nothing more to do than break the minds of those who were willing to engage him in conversation. HBO, perhaps a little too late to the party, decided to animate (although the language and subject matter is R-rated) the "first season" of podcasts, which were 12, roughly 30-minute episodes, into a 13 episode season, that ran around 25-minutes an episode. The result is the "best-of" that first season of podcasts, dropping a few dull bits as well as Karl's hilarious viewer game, "Rockbusters," which would have been completely lost on American audiences. The result is just as hilarious as the podcasts, but the purpose of the series itself is called into question.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I am a huge fan of Karl. I've listened to the entire XFM run of shows, tracing the evolution of the strange little man from Manchester with an odd obsession with "freaks" and monkeys. I own the various seasons of the standalone podcast and have listened to every episode at least twice (in many cases, especially the earlier episodes, four or five times). I'm a strong advocate for anything that gets Karl into the pubic eye, especially in America where he has gone unnoticed by the general population. In that aspect, the HBO series is a huge success. Viewers get the very best of Karl: the meandering surreal answers to basic questions posed by Ricky and Steve (when asked what sound he hates, Karl took 10 minutes justifying his bizarre answer), his decisively pessimistic ("I'm just sayin', I don't like fun") and often anti-social ("It's just a hassle having friends and family and that.") view on life, and yes, his love for tall tale in the form of "Monkey News," although as Ricky points out, the stories are never about monkeys, but instead apes, chimps in particular.
The quality of the animation is very basic and looks like a polished, modern version of a Hannah-Barbara cartoon, right down to Ricky looking similar to Fred Flintstone. Karl's round head is perfectly spherical and despite the basic art, the animators capture Karl's blank expression perfectly. The animation is best used to visualize Karl's often frighteningly logical, odd trains of thought. When he tells Ricky and Steve about his Uncle Alf, the animators add in each increasingly creepy anecdote as they spill from Karl's mouth. Equally comical is whenever Ricky or Steve attempt to make sense of, or summarize one of Karl's insane pieces of philosophy. Where the series shines though is "Monkey News." Having heard a few of these stories from the XFM days, I will admit, Karl has embellished them, and despite a shocking number being true (Oliver the Humanzee, Ham the Space Chimp), every story has Karl adding human characteristics to his simian fascinations, and towards the end of the series, blatantly making up stories; although I truly believe him when he claims people e-mailed him the stories as Karl is gullible to a fault. True or false, his deadpan, earnest delivery is comedy gold, as much as Stephen's amused reaction and Ricky's growing frustration.
Praises aside, there's not a real reason "The Ricky Gervais Show" needs to exist. The animation only adds to previously available audio broadcasts that are just as funny on their own. In fact, the animation does kill one of the biggest treats of the podcasts, the viewer's imagination. Viewers are no longer forced to create a picture of Karl's words in their mind, it's all set out for them here, and personally, a few animations didn't begin to meet what I had previously imagined. Does this make the show a waste of your time? No, but I can't say it's more essential or even as essential a purchase/listen/viewing of the original podcasts. The program is a nice intro to the world of Karl Pilkington and a supplement to long time fans.
Lastly, I feel I must make mention, that "The Ricky Gervais Show" has a very mean slant to it, through the eyes and ears of a new follower. Those who don't know the back-story between Ricky, Steve, and Karl, don't understand Karl's longtime heckling of Steve's odd appearance, nor realize that Ricky and Karl are friends in real life. Ricky is a showman first and foremost, and at times he seems exploitive, but know that Karl has walked away from the podcasts when he got bored with them, not because he felt Ricky was making fun of him; it is a bit sad, that some of the jab's at Ricky's odd ways from the XFM broadcasts never made it to the later podcasts. On those shows, Ricky and Steve would often be the brunt of each other's jabs and Karl wasn't hesitant to fight back. On the podcasts and conversely this show, the focus is on Ricky and Steve winding Karl up and letting him go.
Karl himself may be the most off-putting aspect of the show; despite being the author of a handful of books and the star of his own travel show, he remains uncompromising when it comes to his blunt, "quirky" views of the world. In his writing and shows, he's exactly the same as he is here and often, his nonchalant fascination with what he refers to as "freaks" might offend some viewers, likewise, he's a naively xenophobic (and moderately homophobic, as made clear by his constant fear of sexual assault by male doctors) character, at one point drawing a bit of horror from Ricky and Steve when he claims that "some bacteria lives better than that," in reference to the Inuit. The series also has an extended bit about Karl's claim that "there are no homeless Chinese fellas," and I can't make excuse for Karl's views of the world, but his common use of words and phrases like "wroted" and "bungled in," make it obvious he's not the most classically educated person (a topic discussed at lengths in the XFM broadcast and to Ricky's credit, he's tried many times, off mic to help Karl advance his education, but Karl could care less). That's not to say Karl is stupid, he's not; he's just an odd fellow who probably thinks about the little things in life with greater care and detail (or sometimes with not enough detail) than anyone has or should, and his steadfast hold on his opinions should dispel any notion that his strings are being pulled by Gervais. If anything, Karl has guided Gervais' career to a medium he'd likely have never explored otherwise.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures the simple, but colorful animation with above average results. There is a bit of color bleeding and a few cases of compression artifacts visible, but other wise, it's a fine transfer. It's not going to wow you, but that is not its intent.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is dialogue dependent and front heavy. Dialogue is as clear as the original audio podcasts and additional effects and music are added as support. Overall, the 5.1 mix is overkill, for what is essentially a fancy stereo track. French subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
Two extras grace disc two. "Comedy Gala Animation" is a brief promotional spot for the show, while "Episode Storyboard" is the entirety of the third episode presented as a series of production storyboards. It's an interesting addition, but not something you're likely to watch in its entirety.
"The Ricky Gervais Show: The Complete First Season" is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the world of Karl Pilkington. Longtime fans will get a kick out of seeing Karl's tales brought to life and reliving some of crazier moments. However, for those liking what they see here, I highly recommend seeking out the uncut podcasts at a minimum. A brilliant show at times, pointless at rare moments, but always hilarious. Recommended.