It was the biting wit and mordant sensibility of longtime collaborators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant that brought us the despairing BBC hits The Office and Extras. Prominently bespectacled, Merchant is absurdly tall and skinny, resembling a giant, flightless bird. Gervais is shorter and rounder, equipped with the blunt features of a creature that's used to getting around on all fours. Physically mismatched, yet possessing a rare and brilliant chemistry, they make for an odd couple, and when you see them with one another, well, you just start laughing. Together, their minds run riot. Always the smartest guys in the room, they inspire one another into greater, stranger, and more perfect flights of improvisation. It's actually hysterical to just sit there and listen to them, like buddies in a pub rattling on about whatever strikes their fancy.
With this in mind, back in 2001, Xfm, a brand of alternative radio stations owned by Global Radio in the U.K., began to air The Ricky Gervais Show, which was little more than the two comedians entertaining one another. Over the years, the show evolved into the world's most downloaded podcast, and now, nearly 10 years after its inception, HBO has decided to repackage it as an animated TV series.
In some ways, the star of the show is neither Merchant nor Gervais, but Karl Pilkington, who was originally brought on to produce the radio program but proved himself an invaluable on-air commodity. Dim-witted and determinedly unimaginative, Pilkington serves as the portal through which the exasperated brilliance of Gervais and Merchant shines. Speaking in a passive and colorless monotone that suggests all the life has been drained out of him by his predictable job at a box factory, Pilkington will argue against the usefulness of airplanes, while Merchant and Gervais— incredulous, insulting, but still charming—goad him on and howl with delight.
There's no doubt that The Ricky Gervais Show is funny, but what's mystifying is why anybody thought it would be a good idea to replace the actual comedians with cartoon renditions of the comedians. Gervais and Merchant—and Pilkington, for that matter, who is often described as having a head like an orange—are practically animated creatures to begin with.
No matter, we get a cartoon version of Gervais that looks a little bit like Fred Flintstone, and one of Merchant resembling a kind of elongated version of Barney Rubble. And so we watch these facsimiles of the stars sit in a radio studio and talk. Presumably, using animation to illustrate the podcasts gives the production team the latitude to creatively embellish all the comedic digressions that are being verbalized, enhancing the stellar material with which they're working, but the opposite happens. The pseudo-realistic animation, which is simple and surprisingly conventional in application, serves to inhibit rather than liberate the imagination of the viewer. It's superfluous, placing a boundary on what's excitedly being conceived, as opposed to propelling the material into unexpected realms.
Obviously, the rhythm of the show is conversational. The attempt to weave visual stories out of meandering, improvisational verbalizations feels artificial, even corny. When we see the animated Gervais speaking, the words being uttered are just slightly out of synch, as if translated from another language, and his naturally unreal laughter, which is striking and extraordinary coming from the man, seems like a mawkish, Woody Woodpecker affectation.
To reduce talents as large as Gervais and Merchant to caricatures seems absurd. The vitality and enthusiasm that passes between them, and the unfettered joy implicit in that, demands a human face, and without that, HBO is missing the point, creating a show that's easy to listen to, but actually hard to watch.