Karl Pilkington’s radio/TV career goes back more than fifteen years, but he only came to my attention through the An Idiot Abroad series. There’s something wonderful about his plain-speaking laconic wit and delivery that makes him eminently watchable. It probably helps that, like me, he is a Mancunian who is more comfortable with the simpler things in life and dispenses downbeat views on anything and everything. He likes a good moan, does Karl, and he channels this moaning brilliantly in his various TV vehicles.
In his latest series, Sick Of It, on SkyOne / NowTV, which Karl co-wrote with director Richard Yee, he plays a fictional version of himself. He’s a taxi driver and having recently split up with his girlfriend, he is living with his Auntie Norma. But what’s this? A second version of Karl? Yes, that’s right, Karl also plays the uncensored voice in his head, the manifestation of which we see standing in a mirror behind the real Karl, loping along behind him or simply sitting in the passenger seat of his taxi. So as not to confuse the two, because obviously, they’re identical and are of a similar mind and disposition, the producers have decided to kit the inner Karl out in a beanie hat. Much of the comedy derives from the conversation between the two.
With that particular problem solved, we’re off into episode one, and it’s not a happy start for anybody involved. Karl wants to sell his old sofa because it brings back too many memories of life with his girlfriend, Zoe. But in classic sit-com style, he has managed to schedule delivery of the new sofa during his Uncle Vinnie’s wake! Without giving anything away, this is a nicely constructed episode that gets a lot of comic mileage out of a very simple premise.
In episode two, Karl is forced to visit a therapist following an angry outburst when his nerves have been frayed by a crying baby. But all is not as it seems, and in this case, there’s a nice twist near the end of the episode. The crying baby next door leads us to a perfect example of Karl’s humour. When his auntie reminds him that he split up with his girlfriend because she wanted a baby and he didn’t, Karl uses this as an opportunity to poke a hole in the oft-repeated logic about having a baby because there are so many people in the world who want a baby but can’t have one. “There are lots of one-armed people in the world,” he states, before asserting that he is not going to use this as a reason for taking up juggling. Classic Karl Pilkington.
In the third episode Karl decides to take a holiday somewhere quiet, but his need for solitude doesn’t go down well with the well-meaning locals, who try to get him involved in activities. To the shy and retiring Karl, this is like being in some hellish version of the Hi-de-Hi holiday camp. Worse, his accommodation is next door to a man who takes part in “scream therapy”.
During the early episodes, the viewer might wonder why Karl’s auntie has an American accent. Nothing is said on screen, and we just assume that it was an odd casting choice, but in episode four, Karl takes Norma on a trip to Eastbourne and as part of the backstory, we find out just exactly how Karl has an American auntie. The trip comes about because in a bout of spring-cleaning, Karl has managed to give away one of Norma’s cherished photos. It turns out that the photo had sentimental value and, unable to get it back, Karl tries to make amends by taking his auntie to Eastbourne to help her relive her past. This is a great episode, nicely balancing the sentimentalism of fading memory with more off-beat observations from Karl.
In episode five, Karl gets stuck in a traffic jam at a gay pride festival and ends up crossing paths with somebody from his past. The series concludes with an episode in which he combines twin searches: a date and a cure for constipation. This leads him to a Polish (I think, it could be Ukranian or Russian) party where he doesn’t understand a word anybody is saying, but he has fun as he gets roped into a game involving vodka shots and a spacehopper. Karl and his inner voice discuss the possibility that, unlike his earlier failed attempts at dating, it’s a positive experience because nobody can understand him and therefore he can’t upset them with his innocent, off-the-cuff, yet somehow offensive remarks.
It’s an odd idea for a TV series, but thanks to Karl’s portrayal of a man trying to move on with his life, constantly fighting the negativity of his inner voice, it works brilliantly. In the press for this series, Karl is quick to point out that there’s not much acting going on. That’s true – he’s just playing the same-old Karl that has been on our TV screens for the last few years. He also points out that this is not a laugh-filled half-hour in true sit-com style. He’s right again (the episodes are nearer the twenty-minute mark) and it’s a gentler humour, although there are some laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout the series.
Focussed on the idea of loneliness and depression, and a middle-aged man going through hard times, it certainly isn’t a laugh-a-minute, but crucially, it is funny. And like much of the best TV, you find yourself nodding your ahead and saying “I know that feeling, mate” at regular intervals. Whether it’s annoying recorded voices on an answering machine, reassuring you that “your call is important to us”, large groups of people talking way too loud in a restaurant or people getting in your face when you just want to be left alone, a lot of what happens on-screen will strike a chord with viewers.
Sick Of It may not stretch Karl Pilkington’s acting skills, but in terms of his writing and delivery, he is on top-form here, and I can’t recommend this series highly enough (although Karl’s inner voice would probably downplay the whole affair by just saying something like “It’s not exactly Fawlty Towers, is it?”).