In last week's debut of the new season of "An Idiot Abroad,” title character and favorite Ricky Gervais comic foil Karl Pilkington balks at strapping on a bunch of large helium-filled balloons and taking an "Up"-like ride above a Macedonian field.
He's prodded, though, by his new travel and verbal sparring partner, British actor Warwick Davis, a dwarf perhaps best known for playing an ewok in “Return of the Jedi” before starring in the Gervais mockumentary series "Life's Too Short."
"It's good TV," Davis says.
He's right about that. It's also inspired lunacy: Gervais’ pairing of the perennially put-upon Pilkington and the seemingly easygoing Davis on a journey from Italy to China, a la Marco Polo, is shaping up as the strangest – and funniest – "Idiot" yet.
The Marco Polo gimmick is oddly fitting for Gervais, who, from "The Office" to "Extras" to "Life's Too Short" to his absurdly hilarious podcast chats with Pilkington, seems determined to find new routes to laughter.
We'll admit to initial concerns coming into the third season of "Idiot" that we'd been down this road before: Gervais and writing partner Stephen Merchant twice sent cranky, closed-minded homebody Pilkington around the world, tossing in detours (a kickboxing match in Thailand, wing-walking on a biplane over the Midwest) guaranteed to make him squirm and eventually explode.
But the addition of Davis creates a new Laurel-and-Hardy dynamic that goes beyond the physical differences between the duo (though a scene of a flustered, huffing-and-puffing Pilkington pedaling a bike with Davis in a basket, "E.T."-style, offered a great visual gag). Pilkington, who doesn't relate particularly well to human beings, calls Davis a "leech." Davis’ embracing of the new and ability to enjoy himself seem to annoy the prickly Pilkington most ("He's treating it like a holiday!” Pilkington complains to Gervais, who offers cackles of laughter via phone).
Gervais is the largely unseen hand guiding the odd couple’s misadventure. He sends them to a costume ball in Venice – Pilkington dressed as a miserable Pagliacci-like clown and Davis clad as a miniature Casanova – that turns out to be some kind of kinky party. The balloons couldn’t lift the feet-dragging Pilkington from the Macedonian field, but took Davis on a by turns soaring and bumpy ride – setting the tone for this three-episode TV travelogue that’s a trip well worth watching, if not taking.
Check out some excerpts from “An Idiot Abroad: The Short Way Round,” which airs Saturdays on the Science channel:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.