Ricky Gervais has a pretty well sustained habit of only doing 2 seasons of his TV series. Two series and a special is his m.o., if precedent can be trusted. While this was technically billed as the third season of An Idiot Abroad, it is really more of a prolonged special.
Instead of sending Karl out on his own, Ricky and Steve have given him ‘a little pal’ in Warwick Davis. I’m not sure if this idea came from Ricky working with Warwick on Life’s Too Short, or it emerged from the China episode of An Idiot Abroad–the very first episode, actually–when Karl visited a ‘dwarf village’ made up of little people who lived in very small homes and put on shows a few times per day for tourist tips. Karl thought this was wonderful and really enjoyed it. He said to the camera that ‘Ricky knows a little fella’ and he wondered what he would think of the village. At this point, I remember asking my boyfriend if he thought Karl was talking about Warwick Davis. He was, in fact. Karl called Warwick and asked his opinion on the dwarf village. Warwick did not think it was wonderful, something Karl couldn’t quite comprehend. It’s one of the more interesting scenes in the original An Idiot Abroad series, and I sort of think that’s where this idea to put the two together came from.
If you’re wondering about the name (The Short Way Round), it’s an homage to a series of documentary (I use this term for want of a better one) films that Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman made. The first was called The Long Way Down, where the boys rode their motorcycles from London to New York, by going East. The second was The Long Way Down, where they rode their bikes from the Northernmost tip of Scotland to the Southernmost point of Africa. I’m not sure if The Short Way Round refers to the short nature of this special, the shortness of their trip, or is a nod to the shortness of Warwick.
In the first episode, Karl and Warwick go to Venice. They are recreating Marco Polo’s trip to China, so they begin in Italy. It becomes apparent immediately that Karl and Warwick do not agree on anything. Their life views are completely different. And the rest of this ‘series’ will remind you exactly how awful it is to travel with someone with whom you are not getting on. The boys dress up that night for a costume party in the old Venetian tradition. Karl really does not like this, and I can’t say I blame him. One of the old-fashioned games is to be blindfolded and tickled with various things, etc., to experience different sensations. As Karl explains, he could do without having an unknown someone’s halitosis blowing onto his face. He complains, and then ditches Warwick on his own.
The next day, Karl has picked something he wants to do–a jet pack. The most hilarious part of this episode (and also the saddest), is that Karl is made entirely miserable by this activity that he has brought upon himself. Oh, Karl. The end of the episode has the boys move on to Macedonia, where they stay with a family of Romani (gypsies). Warwick is made a bit uncomfortable–Romani consider little people to be good luck, so they make excuses to rub his head and touch him. I would take a pass on that as well. Later, the boys attend a religious ceremony where men stick metal rods through various body parts and then do some whirling dervish style dances. Then Karl tries to be lifted by a bunch of helium balloons, but proves too heavy. He coerces Warwick into going up, and he sails very high in the air and feels a bit ill. But it’s good to see that the show will not just be making Karl uncomfortable. It would feel too much like bullying if Warwick enjoyed the whole trip and Karl none of it.
Episode 2 takes the boys on to India, where each participates in activities they dislike. Karl enjoys laughter yoga, and dislikes acting in a Bollywood film–partially because Warwick is acting a bit bossy now that he’s more or less in his own milieu. They take a river cruise on the Ganges and then camp on its banks. They plan to stay for the night but some drunken locals annoy Karl so much he leaves for a hotel. The highlight for Karl is a trip to a nearby circus
and to visit the Spider Girls, a pair of conjoined twins featured there. The circus and its emphasis on showcasing the disfigured, disabled, and anatomically different, make Warwick very uncomfortable. Karl is in his element here. Everyone is a bit worried about Karl, but I think he’s very nice to them. He asks them questions that would occur to everyone, about how they accomplish daily tasks. He’s never disrespectful; only fascinated. And if no one was fascinated by them, they’d have a much harder time making a living. On the other hand, I can see why it would make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially Warwick.
The third and last episode gets the boys all the way to China. They take a trip on the Yangtze river, where Warwick gets a private cabin and Karl is put in steerage with 5 other blokes and a non-functioning toilet. This seems very cruel to me. Unless Warwick is paying his own way, I can’t help but think this is just Ricky being a terrible person. Part of the humor of An Idiot Abroad has always been seeing Karl complain and rant about doing things that a lot of us would love to do–climb Machu Picchu, see the Pyramids, go whale watching, etc.–but this is him complaining about a legitimate slight. I didn’t enjoy that. Once they’re off the boat, they visit the Chengdu Giant Panda research facility to interact with Pandas–thereby making me incredibly and irrevocably jealous.
On their climb up Mount Emei, Davis is beginning to be exhausted and wants to rely on a chair that you can hire to carry you up the mountain. Karl has a bit of a pep talk with him and it is one of the nicer scenes to show how traveling with someone can give you a more full experience than if left to your own devices. Then, Karl decides he has worked hard enough, and pays to have the men carry him up the mountain. It doesn’t occur to him that this is strange, because he doesn’t think he has anything to prove by getting up the mountain. Warwick does make it up all the way, and is grateful to have gotten to the top. As a grand finale to the series, the boys are supposed to do a bungee jump or base jump or some other X-sport off the top of the Macau Tower. Warwick does it, Karl chickens out. In typical Karl fashion.
The thing about these shows is that Karl is the last person to enjoy traveling. I think traveling is incredibly important to understand the vastness of the world and your insignificance in it, but some people do not enjoy it. Karl thrives on routine and convenience. In every situation, his only experience seems to be anxiety and irritation. It really straddles a line between hilarious and sad. With Warwick in the mix, that is still there, but I think the dynamic is a bit muddled. There are points where it does seem like everyone is ganging up on Karl, forcing him to exist permanently outside his comfort zone, and trying to deny him the only parts of the trip that seem fun and exciting to him. But at other times, when Warwick is made to try something new and scary, it feels less like schadenfreude…or maybe it’s schadenfreude that is more equally distributed.
I can’t say I enjoyed these 3 special episodes more than the original series, but they were still funny and interesting and made me think a lot. Whenever I watch Karl, I think about his way of living. He doesn’t think the way other people do, I suspect because he hasn’t had a lot of education. At a certain point in school, everyone starts to think in the same way. Call it scientific method, or brainwashing, or logic, or whatever, but all of the educated persons on earth will use the same process to evaluate the world–even if they get vastly different ideas from that process, it is the same process. Karl has a more intuitive grasp on the world, which means occasionally he says the dumbest things you’ve ever heard. It also means occasionally he says something that will make you stop and re-evaluate the universe. He honestly sounds like Confucius sometimes, blurting out things that might be riddles, or nonsense, or great truth. I love listening to him talk because he doesn’t say what anyone else would say. I will probably watch anything with him in, just to hear the things he says.