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Review: In ‘Asian Provocateur,’ There’s No Place as Scary as Home


The British comedian Romesh Ranganathan in “Asian Provocateur” on Sundance Now.

Sundance Now

Rom, the reluctant traveler of the reality-comedy series “Asian Provocateur,” is a classic Ugly Westerner at loose in the third world — always in a hurry, horrified by the sight of a squat toilet, handing out lemon puffs and chocolate creams to indigenous Sri Lankan tribespeople.

The twist is that he’s Sri Lankan too, by heritage in any case: Romesh Ranganathan is a schoolteacher turned comedian whose parents immigrated to Britain before he was born. A self-described brown white man, he spends his time in this BBC series (streaming at Sundance Now on Thursday) in successive states of boredom, befuddlement and sheer terror.

“Asian Provocateur,” which was directed and produced by Benjamin Green, contains elements of many shows that have gone before but its closest analogue is “An Idiot Abroad,” on which Mr. Green worked as a producer. In that show Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant stayed comfortably at home in Britain while their dyspeptic puppet, Karl Pilkington, did the actual traveling.

In “Provocateur” the Gervais-Merchant role is taken by Mr. Ranganathan’s imperious mother, Shanthi, who — in the show’s storyboarded “reality” — sends him to Sri Lanka to connect with his roots and, if possible, lose a little weight. His adventures alternate with scenes of her prepping him for his journey. When he questions her plans for him, she snaps: “‘Why?’ Don’t say that. Say, ‘O.K., Mama, I’ll do it.’” She also calls him a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside.

The show has two sources of humor, then — the parlor comedy of mother putting down son, and the physical, farcical comedy of Mr. Ranganathan blundering across Sri Lanka, gamely enduring the trials she has arranged. He dons a saffron robe and walks barefoot down scorching highways in a religious pilgrimage, undergoes the humiliations of martial-arts training and perches for hours on a bamboo pole while trying to snare crabs with a stick.

The show’s challenge is to milk humor from his irritation and superiority without seeming to condescend to the Sri Lankans and their culture, a feat achieved in the usual way, through a constant undercutting of Mr. Ranganathan’s Western assumptions. When the tone starts to wobble, he’ll chime in with a line like, “I’m a lazy, horrible, home-comforts-wanting pig,” to reset the balance.

It mostly works. Mr. Ranganathan’s blunt self-deprecation is disarming and the situations he and Mr. Green engineer are simple but amusing. When, at his mother’s urging, Mr. Ranganathan agrees to an ayurvedic cleansing, he endures a level of fat-shaming that would never make it into an American show. He also tells Mr. Green, “No filming,” which of course means that the ensuing enema, and desperate search for a restroom, are thoroughly documented.

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