Considering that his two exceptional series — “The Office” and “Extras” — each yielded a mere dozen episodes plus a wrap-up special, Ricky Gervais has an oversized media footprint, as he doubtless should. So HBO — in a move that amounts to using every part of the chicken — has taken the British comic’s wildly popular podcasts and animated them, employing a stiff “The Flintstones”-type look and visual template. This inspired idea works just fitfully — such as when illustrating Gervais’ strange fascination with monkeys. Still, anything that brings Gervais into homes more frequently is welcome, if not necessarily, as the Brits say, brilliant.
The half-hour episodes do without a theme or any connective tissue. They open with live-action footage of Gervais, collaborator Steven Merchant and their daft producer and comic foil, Karl Pilkington, as they enter a radio studio, then melt into animation of the discussion that ensues.
Gervais and Merchant spend much of their time mocking Pilkington, who does possess a rather peculiar way of viewing the world. (“The ramblings of a madman,” Gervais cackles at one point, frequently letting loose an infectious howl at Pilkington’s pronouncements.)
At its core, the series provides an opportunity for the trio to simply riff on things — quirky news stories, whatever. In the process, the comedic jazz provides helpful insight into the nature of Gervais and Merchant’s collaboration, with a shared fondness for identifying the silly and ridiculous.
Animation would seem to be an ideal vehicle for this, but there’s only so much it can do — in part because there’s no adhesive to the episodes. The three guys sit and bullshit for 20-some-odd minutes — at times entertainingly — until the program simply ends. Perhaps that’s why the effect diminishes as the episodes wear on, though Glyn Hughes’ jaunty score does play them out on a high note.
On a broader level, radio seldom translates very well into visual media — witness the gap between Howard Stern’s vibrant radio shtick and his flat forays into television — and that’s sometimes the case here.
Everything about “The Ricky Gervais Show” speaks to its modest expectations — an inexpensive way to exploit Gervais’ acute observational comedy in another niche. In that respect, it’s not unlike approaches used in the past with Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers” (prank phone calls replicated by puppets) and Robert Smigel’s “Fun With Real Audio” cartoons on “Saturday Night Live.”
Notably, the program is premiering outside HBO’s Sunday showcase for original fare, mitigating the risk. So until Gervais finds the time to create another series, the best one can say is, “That’ll do, monkey. That’ll do.”