As far as disreputable television goes, reality TV falls somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that accumulates on the corner of your mouth when you’re really thirsty.  They say it scrapes the bottom of the barrel….that’s funny.  Reality TV appeals to the absolute lowest common denominator, whether it’s making attention-hungry yuppies go all Lord of the Flies on one another for a cash prize, glorifying the 1% with the help of the most useless “billionaire” since Richie Rich, or subjecting viewers to the alcohol-and-AXE-body-spray-infused screetchings of New Jersey’s worst.  And that’s just what makes it on-air; behind the scenes, writers and actors have become increasingly marginalized, as reality TV requires neither of them.  Calling the genre “Bottom of the barrel” is an insult to barrels’ bottoms.

Yet without reality TV, we’d never have “An Idiot Abroad.”  The best thing resulting from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s creative partnership is not “The Office” or its follow-up “Extras.”  It’s their friendship with Karl Pilkington, former XFM radio producer who became the star of Gervais and Merchant’s “The Ricky Gervais Show” podcasts.  If you’ve never heard the three at work, click HERE for a taste.

That loopy dynamic—Ricky and Steve are half-exasperated, half-delighted by Karl’s mix of stubborn provincialism and childlike curiosity—gets a real workout on “An Idiot Abroad.”  Karl has always insisted that he doesn’t really see the point of travel, and so Ricky and Steve put that claim to the test.  Each of the show’s seven episodes finds Karl at a different World Wonder—the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Petra, Chichen Itza, the Great Pyramids, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, and Machu Picchu—trying to adjust to culture shock.

The basic gimmick is that Ricky and Steve toss nasty surprises at Karl wherever he travels, be it a mock-terrorist kidnapping in Jordan, an Indian boutique shop where all the products are made from cows**t, or a visit to a nude beach in Brazil (Ricky is maniacally obsessed with sending the mildly homophobic Karl into places dominated by the male organ).  But this kind of humor isn’t far removed from the shtick on “Jersey Shore” or “The Surreal Life.”  Sure, “An Idiot Abroad” is actually funny, but it’s still just another C-List celebrity humiliated for our pleasure.

What elevates the show above an elaborate practical joke are the grace notes Karl experiences.  The way he finds solace in the professional relief of an Egyptian KFC run by deaf people, or how powerfully decades of Israeli/Palestinian conflict hit him when he crosses between both territories.  The delight he evinces (which is a big deal, considering Karl’s default speeds are “Irritated” and “Taciturn”) during a night’s rest in a hotel room carved into a cliff side—he’s suddenly a kid again, playing caveman outside.  His quiet bemusement when, coasting down a canal bordering the Taj Mahal, he realizes the smoke drifting into the sky comes from burning dead bodies.  Divorced from Ricky and Steve, we begin to see Karl as a person, rather than a punchline.  There’s a lovely poetry at work, a mix of spectacle and silly, and these sweet, deeply human asides negate the misconception that Ricky and Steve only mean to exploit Karl.  Ricky loves teasing our hero, but expanding Karl’s narrow worldview…. that’s the real endgame.

Look, I don’t doubt that much of this “reality” is staged for maximum impact; every time we see Karl trekking through the [fill in extreme natural terrain here], we must remember that we’re looking at him through a cameraman’s lens, probably from the relative safety of an ATV that carries supplies galore should Karl encounter real danger. But it’s persuasive just the same, and the editorial impact holds true.  Ricky and Steve believe that world travel can change a person, and regardless of how they’ve used Karl’s footage to prove that point, they get a lot of mileage from the quiet, sad moment when, months after returning to England, Karl travels to the Welsh campground of his youth and admits it just doesn’t hold the same appeal anymore.  “An Idiot Abroad” makes us believers in the emotional journey of this strange, funny, clear-eyed little man, and in the no-man’s land of reality television, that sensation is no small miracle.

As DVDs go, BBC and 2Entertain’s 2-disc set looks and sounds great, with sharp digital picture and a lively Dolby 2.0 Stereo track.  However, the show looked even better on BBC America’s HD broadcasts; a Blu-ray version would be so choice.  Unfortunately, the UK’s Blu-ray won’t play on Region-A-locked players, so this DVD package is as good as it gets for many of us Yanks.

Supplements are sparse but worthwhile.  We get the twenty-two-minute preview episode (it’s basically Ricky and Steve teasing Karl about the hell he’s going to endure, and it’s hilarious), some solid deleted scenes, and a stills gallery.  The best feature?  The episodes included are the uncensored versions as seen on Sky1, with all the unbleeped swearing and male nudity that designation entails.

Watching “An Idiot Abroad” makes me weep for the future of reality TV; why is it all so bad when people like Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant can make it so good?  There’s compassion here, and real love; you don’t even have to look past the testacle-eating and forced thong-wearing to see it.

“An Idiot Abroad” is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

Home Culture Television Recap: AN IDIOT ABROAD: SERIES 1 on DVD