Karl Pilkington is a unique individual to be certain. He was first discovered by Ricky Gervais and his writing partner Stephen Merchant, late of the BBC (and later HBO) series Extras as an engineer in the radio studio where Gervais and Merchant were recording their well-received and popular podcast series. Karl's views on life and society stunned Ricky and Steve for their audacity and their obtuse nature. The podcasts can not only be downloaded but have been set to animations in The Ricky Gervais Show which airs on HBO. Soon after, Ricky grew intrigued with Karl to do more and said as much to him, and brought up the idea of Karl traveling to see the Seven Wonders of the World. By his nature, Karl has constructed a small yet comfortable bubble around him and his girlfriend Suzanne, so he mildly bristled at the notion of traveling around the world to places he would not normally consider. However he eventually acquiesced and went with it, travelling to the locales at Ricky and Steve's expense (and accommodation selections), and such was the genesis of An Idiot Abroad.
First things first when it comes to this show: for those unfamiliar with how Ricky and Steve treat Karl, things can be a little bit harsh, even for someone who has watched Ricky in his previous shows. At one point when Karl is in Jordan visiting Petra (which you might recognize from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Ricky tells Karl that he will be spending the night in a cave opposite the monument. When Karl asks why, Ricky stifles laughter and says "Because it's funny." This is after Karl has spent most of the last two days in the desert, under a tent, eating personally questionable food at nights and on the back of a camel during the day. After spending most of the episode (an hour long for each of the Wonders, incidentally), one could find some empathy for Karl after something that was less of a trip and more of a personal ordeal, but that would be forgetting what Ricky says at the prerecorded beginning of each episode. He wants to force Karl into a corner, being poked by a stick, and Ricky is accepting, damn near chomping at the bit, to be the stick.
Once you get past this uncomfortable truth, the show is funny. Aside from the aforementioned Petra, Karl visits the Great Wall of China, the Taj Majal, Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Chichen Itza in Mexico, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil and Jerusalem's Western Wall, along with a few other places along the way. And while Karl manages to see the sights, he does things that go beyond a travelogue show, and without his prior knowledge. While in Israel, he is kidnapped and held hostage as part of a readiness drill that Ricky and Steve planned. He eats food that would make him an ideal candidate for Fear Factor, he stays in hotels that could be generously labeled "substandard," and that's when he is able to stay at a hotel to begin with.
While the experiences tend to grate on Karl, one can't help but laugh at some of the things that he goes through, and he certainly doesn't help matters when it comes to be familiar (or clueless) with culture. In Chichen Itza, he seemingly asks vendor who will listen whether or not they have Mexican jumping beans for sale, because he saw them on Sesame Street. Also in Mexico, he dry heaves after eating a mescal worm. But there is another scene within the Mexico episode that may be the funniest. After resisting a bull ride, he leaps over the gate and walks away, refusing to do any more activities. He almost immediately runs back after declaring there was a group of bees that were approaching. This goes directly to challenging Karl's comfort zone, and as Merchant says (also in the introduction of each episode) he "firmly believes travel broadens the mind," and that is one of the goals for Ricky and Steve.
And oddly enough there are moments when it works well. In the India episode, you get the sense that Karl warms up to the experience, particularly when he meets a man that invites him for a swim. Those moments while few and far between certainly prove the saying that if you can reach one person among a crowd of hundreds, and combined with the other things that occur through the show's eight episodes, make for a mix of different types of humor, all of which pay off richly.
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen for all of the broadcast content (which is spread over two discs). I do not know whether or not the film was shot natively in high-definition (though there is a Blu-ray edition available for import from the UK), but the standard definition discs look good nonetheless. Action is almost entirely done via handheld shots and the exteriors look natural and superb, with no edge enhancement or image haloing to speak of. Considering the lengths of the world that was spanned, I was impressed with how clean the source material was, and the viewing experience was pleasant.
Dolby two-channel stereo for everything. This is not that surprising with the show, because the show is designed to get out of the way as much as possible so Karl can be shown off to experience things for himself. Even when things get a little hectic in Karl's travels it is far from being reference material. The track replicates the events nicely, with the rear channels occasionally mirroring this (albeit faintly), with little to be concerned about when it comes to subwoofer activity.
It should be noted that while American audiences saw censored broadcasts on Discovery's Science Channel, the discs are unedited and in all their glory from the original British broadcasts. No bleeps, but far more dong shots. A preview show (22:47) covers what Karl is about to undertake, while the review show (43:50) is where we learn Karl is certain that Chinese babies have square heads so they don't roll out of bed. The man just keeps on giving. Eight deleted scenes (13:51) include a funny moment when Karl meets "Jesus," and there is a stills gallery to complete the two-disc set.
An Idiot Abroad is fascinating regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I would go out on a limb and say that the show serves as comedy, information, as even has a slightly touching moment here and there. If you are not planning to buy the discs, it is still worth checking out, and for fans of the show, the fact that it is uncensored make it a strong recommendation to buy.