Romesh Ranganathan is the latest to tackle the now-prolific genre of Comedian Travels Abroad. We all know what to expect from such shows, from awkward encounters and amusing outsider-gets-cultural-detail-incorrect slips, not to mention their awe at the exotic world around them, the hidden beauty they unearth, the mind-blowing discovery that other experiences to their lives are available on this planet. What a journey, they say. It’s been a real journey.
Asian Provocateur takes all of those cliches and doesn’t so much subvert them as throw them in the bin entirely. That usual fish-out-of-water schtick is given a wonderful personal touch in this BBC Three series by the fact that he’s heading to his parents’ homeland of Sri Lanka. Why? Not because BBC Three has commissioned him to make a string of funny travelogues, but because him mum told him to. The aim of his trip? To meet his Uncle Thiru and learn about his heritage.
Romesh and his mum just might be one of the great double acts of our time and their personal exchanges only reinforce the intimate nature of what we’re actually watching. Calling him a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside), she wants to give him a better insight into what life would have been like for him if he were raised in his home country. The result is less a clash of cultures and more a nuanced exploration on the difference between first and second generation immigrants, and there’s chance in each uncomfortable scenario to both sympathise with Romesh and with the locals around him.
Season 2 builds on that by reuniting with his mum for Season 2, where they head to Florida – home of Romesh’s cousin, Pretheep. Culture clash gives way to generational differences in worldview, as Asian Provocateur gently explores the way that we now perceive America compared to the way it was perceived years ago.
There are still laughs aplenty, though. Ranganathan is a naturally funny guy, and the format allows that to come across without beating you over the head with it – he can juggle (literal) toilet humour with low-key laughs, while each chuckle never feels engineered or contrived; there’s an honesty to letting us visit Sri Lanka with him – a sincerity to his motivations that stem less from a desire to make a TV show and more from his need to make his mum stop nagging him. It’s a journey, yes, but it’s one you feel he was going to make regardless of whether we tagged along or not.
Asian Provocateur: Season 1 and 2 is available on BBC iPlayer until 8th December 2018. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
Photo: Rumpus Media / Benjamin Green