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Latest hilarious instalment of faux travel show follows in footsteps of famous explorer

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Three globe-trotting jaunts into the extended adventure/ordeal imposed upon him by "mate" Ricky Gervais, it's hard to imagine that Karl Pilkington really hasn't developed a taste -- or, at least, a tolerance -- for this travel documentary thing.

Actually, the more time the less-than-affable Englishman spends away from home as the subject/victim of the ongoing series An Idiot Abroad, the more difficult it becomes to believe that Pilkington's unease and ineptitude are the genuine, unrehearsed behaviour of a simpleton rather than the carefully crafted act of a skilled comedic performer.

But here's the thing: whether he's actually confounded or a willing conspirator in an elaborate faux-documentary contrivance, Pilkington remains hilarious as the Gervais-produced series returns with its third instalment, An Idiot Abroad: The Short Way Around.

Unlike the first two seasons -- the first sent Pilkington on a quest to visit the Seven Wonders of the Modern World; the second had him checking off destinations on a Gervais-assembled "bucket list" -- this new three-episode set doesn't involve a solo journey.

Instead, Gervais enlists the help of friend/co-star Warwick Davis (Life's Too Short) as Pilkington's travelling companion as he sets out to retrace the Venice-to-China footsteps of Marco Polo. He is, as one might imagine, given Pilkington's limited social skills, not a welcome addition.

"I've never seen a dwarf go on an around-the-world trip on any program," the filter-less Pilkington says when he meets with Gervais and Davis to discuss the journey. "I just think (he's) going to be a hindrance ... like a little sort of limpet, hanging on, dragging me back.

"That's how it feels -- something that's just hanging on -- a stag beetle, a leech."

Warwick, thankfully, is more amused than affronted. And so the journey begins.

As Marco Polo did more than 700 years ago, Pilkington and Davis begin their adventure in Venice. Before departing, however, they spend a couple of days sampling the culture and customs of the canal-crossed Italian city -- feeding pigeons in St. Mark's Square ("We've got those in Trafalgar Square," moans Karl), taking part in a elaborate masked ball and, later, strapping Pilkington into a water-powered jetpack unit on one of Venice's canals.

It's all very amusing, because Davis -- as he proved in his inspired self-parodying turn in Life's Too Short -- is willing to try anything, and Pilkington, whether in reality or merely in character, is hilariously averse to venturing even slightly out of his comfort zone.

Later in the first episode, the duo travels to Macedonia, where they set up camp with a band of gypsies and then visit with members of a religious sect whose practices prove to be a bit of a shocker for the comparatively staid Brits. The episode really takes off when Pilkington and Davis agree to try a primitive but (for viewers) highly entertaining version of hot-air ballooning.

Along the way, Gervais chimes in regularly in a series of cellphone conversations in which he takes delight in stage-managing the pair's shenanigans from afar. The exchanges never fail to entertain, fueled as they are by Gervais's infectiously mischievous giggle.

Episodes 2 and 3, which follow immediately, take Pilkington and Davis through India, where they experience "laughing yoga" and land roles in a Bollywood movie, and then on to China, where they cruise the Yangtze River and engage in some ridiculous behaviour at a panda sanctuary.

If there's anything that this third version of An Idiot Abroad proves, it's that there's still mileage left in this sort-of-travelogue project. As long as Pilkington remains -- or remains able to portray -- the titular idiot, he'll be a worthy guide and companion for couchbound dreamers looking for a decidedly uncomfortable kind of travel adventure.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2013 C3

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