The Moaning of Life: TV Review
Saturdays at 10 p.m. on Science Channel, beginning Jan. 18
Ricky Gervais' unique pal Karl Pilkington returns for more global adventures, and plenty of complaining.
For American Karl Pilkington fans, The Moaning of Life is a long-awaited gift on our shores. For those unacquainted with him, it may be more of a puzzle. Pilkington made his series debut two years ago in An Idiot Abroad, a travel show also first broadcast in the U.K., that played out like a constant practical joke, with Pilkington bearing the brunt of his friend Ricky Gervais' inexhaustible ideas to make him miserable. The two met over a decade ago, when Pilkington was the producer of a London radio show that Gervais and his Office and Extras co-writer Stephen Merchant had on Saturday afternoons. Once Pilkington began talking, they knew they had struck gold. Since then, the two (but mostly Gervais) have endeavored to make his "bald little Manc head" one that's globally recognized.
Part of Pilkington's appeal is in his straightforward approach to life, and the fact that he has an opinion on everything (to express just one: "Anger is like gas: just fart, let it out"). He enjoys, as he puts it, "havin' a moan" about things but doesn't consider himself unhappy. But his turning 40 seemed like a good opportunity to explore some of the big questions in life he's never bothered with: the nature of happiness, kids, marriage, vocation and even death. Each of these ideas frames the context for the loosely related, hourlong episodes, which find Pilkington all over the world in search of a deeper consideration of these things, much like in An Idiot Abroad.
But unlike his former show, this time Pilkington is exploring on his own terms, only occasionally prodded or questioned by the producers. In the past series, Gervais yelling and laughing at Pilkington over crackling cell phones from across the world was often grating, as the beleaguered Pilkington (understandably) expressed his displeasure with the extreme scenarios he was put in for Gervais' pleasure. In The Moaning of Life, though, Pilkington is able to act as an observer and a commentator -- his strongest points -- rather than be forced into participation. But when he does participate (like when he joins a hip-hop clown outfit in Compton for the day, creating his own "crumpet dance") the results are stunningly hilarious.
In the two-part premiere, Pilkington is confronted with the ideas of happiness and, later, kids. For the first hour, he turns his nose up at people who run extreme distances, and others who get pleasure from hanging from hooks, but embraces dumpster diving (he is elated to find a new coat and some uneaten pizzas) and a little botox treatment. Later, he goes to Japan, Bali and then back to Los Angeles to experience how different cultures approach birth and child care (Pilkington does not have children, though he does have a de facto wife of over 20 years -- an upcoming episode on marriage explores Pilkington's lack of desire to get married despite his long-term relationship).
The series, just like An Idiot Abroad, is beautifully filmed, taking in the sumptuous settings and colorful cultures that regular bloke Pilkington finds himself engaging with, even if he doesn't necessarily get much enjoyment from them. He declares, "We've had the Iron Age, the Stone Age -- this the pissing-about age." Then, musing later, "Who's the mental one here, me, or everyone else?" The answer will depend on your world view, but the bottom line is that his new series is more relaxed, and much funnier, than Idiot Abroad because of his own comfort level. He defines his own happiness as "just a bit of comfort," and suggests, "The best way to learn is to watch and observe." It's easy to agree with that when watching The Moaning of Life. Happiness for us is that he has brought us along.