Karl Pilkington insists that his returning Sky One series Sick of It is not a comedy, no matter how it’s billed. “It’s not meant to be that funny, really,” he said at a recent press screening of series two’s first and fourth episodes. “The laughing got on me nerves.”
In a way, he’s right – it’s rarely less than amusing, and there’s some fantastic one-liners dotted throughout the six new episodes (“People are like farts – some are big and loud, some go unnoticed.”). But the big broad laughs of the sort delivered by Pilkington’s previous travelogue shows An Idiot Abroad (2010-12) and its follow-up The Moaning of Life (2013-2015), which saw the deadpan Mancunian thrust into a series of increasingly outlandish situations across the globe, are in short supply.
That’s entirely the point, though. Come to Sick of It for sights similar to Pilkington in a jockstrap dancing with tribesmen and you’ll be disappointed. But stick with it, do away with your preconceptions and what you’ll find is something really quite special.
Sick of It is only Pilkington’s second major acting gig – after a stint on his old cohort Ricky Gervais’s Derek – and sees him play both ‘Karl’, a character broadly based on himself, perhaps if he hadn’t found success via his earlier radio and screen ventures, and ‘Inner Self’, an imaginary doppelgänger who gives voice to all of Karl’s worst fears and biggest anxieties.
Not a sitcom in the traditional sense, it succeeds by finding moments of joy and pathos in the crushingly commonplace. Watching it, it’s no surprise that Pilkington, who also co-writes with Richard Yee, cites the works of Ken Loach as an inspiration (his favourite film is 1970’s Kes) rather than any TV or film comedy.
Though it occasionally strays into the surreal – there’s a sequence here that, for reasons I won’t spoil, involves Pilkington’s head being CGI-ed onto a baby’s body – Sick of It is mostly concerned with the everyday. From awkward run-ins with old schoolmates and the complications of dating at middle-age to an addiction to biscuits, it’s a show about finding profundity in mundanity.
The biggest change from the first series is that Karl now has another voice in his head besides Inner Self – the charming, impetuous and very real Ruby (Marama Corlett, terrific). It’s an addition that not only helps this second series avoid retreading the same ground as the first, but also pushes both Karl the character and Karl the performer in new and challenging directions.
Pilkington’s other oft-repeated claim regarding Sick of It is that he is ‘not really an actor’. He hadn’t even planned to appear in the show originally, preferring to remain out of the spotlight. “I thought, ‘I’m not an actor. If someone else did it, they’re going to do a better job’,” he told the Belfast Telegraph in 2018.
Here, I’d firmly disagree – it’s true that Pilkington plays a character who’s a subtly tweaked version of himself, but there’s a relaxed, naturalistic quality to his performances that coupled with the innate charisma and wit that made his travelogues so entertaining means he’s absolutely a compelling screen presence. He’s also clearly grown as a performer since the early days of Derek, delivering two distinct performances in Sick of It as Karl and Inner Self and holding his own in scenes with the likes of Shameless’s Dean Lennox Kelly and This is England’s Jo Hartley. (By all accounts, Shane Meadows is interested in meeting him…)
So while Sick of It series two is just a few notches off of perfect – its third episode has a little too much fun beating down Pilkington’s character to no real end, while a twist towards the end of the series doesn’t quite have the emotional impact it could – it’s nonetheless a smart, well-observed, touching and, yes, funny reflection on the intricacies and trivialities of modern life, and a step-up from the already formidable first series.
Or to put it in more Pilkington-esque terms, this is something very much more than just “alright”.
All episodes of Sick of It will be available on Sky One and NOW TV from 10th January