On Idiot Abroad, the producers, including Ricky Gervais, give their lead character, idiot Karl, who’s really not so dumb, a bucket list of exciting options. Each week he chooses from the list. This week, he chooses “whale watching.” However, those two words don’t come close to conveying the litany of trials and ancillary activities for our hero to endure before he reaches his goal. The show’s logic flows like this: Karl wants to go whale watching. That happens in Alaska. What do we know about Alaska? Ice road truckers. Polar bears. Eskimo. Snow, ice, and mountains. Karl’s whale watching must involve all of these things, too.
Soon enough, Karl finds himself slogging for nine hours through five-foot deep snow guided by an Alaskan who giggles each time Karl falls over and patronizes him by saying “awesome” when Karl can keep his skis straight enough to slide 10 feet down a slope.
They pause to get Karl’s thoughts. Standing in front of a beautiful mountain vista, sheer rock faces and snow drifts everywhere, mountain peaks stacked on top of each other, he says “Back home, you look out, see it’s like this, and you stay in with your Colombo box set.”
When they reach their cabin, the man tells Karl that, if he needs to poo, he’ll have to wipe with a chunk of ice. Then the man sits down and sings Karl a song:
“It’s more than I can bare / because I love you so dear / I really caribou you.” Karl stares unbelieving, mouth agape, into the camera
Later, an Inuit woman takes Carl to the northernmost point in the U.S., Point Barrow. Karl seems disappointed. “There’s nothing here.” He stands amid a sea of snow and ice. “I thought there’d be more to it.”
I had to see for myself, so I looked up Barrow, AK on Googlemaps. The land there is porous, spotted with lakes, all elongated in the same direction, like stretched taffy, as if the north pole’s trying to hoist the land over its shoulder like a duffel bag. There’s an airport there, a pizza shack named Arctic Pizza, a high school and even a college. Everything’s covered in snow. And I wondered, do arctic residents dream about the tropics?
Basically, Karl’s always pissed. Each bucket list entry becomes the most trying ordeal of his life. Be careful what you ask for, the show seems to say. They rarely show Karl smiling. His life is lived in constant disappointment and subverted expectations. He might as well be waiting for Godot. The satisfaction of a life well lived may never come for Karl. And that’s what makes him an idiot. He expects fun adventure from his producer Ricky Gervais who, because it pleases the audience, will only deliver him more misery.
The viewer must wonder where the line between Karl the man and Karl the character lies. At the end of the day, does Karl order a steak and bourbon? Does he stay in a nice hotel every so often and laugh in his warm bath as he orders room service? Does he suppress his smile for the camera?
In this episode, Karl finally sees a whale, but he’s gone through such torture to see it that, between sea sickness and the stench of octopus organs, he cannot marvel as the spume of water shoots from the sea; he can only gag.
That’s Karl’s voice–dejected, fooled, resigned to the absurdity of his life. What’s my voice? It’s out there, on the rails, I suppose. But I know it’s not Karl. It’s something different. Something that celebrates. Something that redeems.