"Almost Royal," which premieres Saturday on BBC America, is a prank sitcom in the spirit of Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G, (which is in turn in the spirit of Chris Morris' great "Brass Eye," which also influenced, or anyway predated "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart era). The deal: Actors engage unsuspecting citizens in what the citizens believe is an actual interview or interaction, but which the actor knows is a kind of improv comedy.
As in Baron Cohen's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and "Brüno," the framework here is a trip to the United States; the travelers in this case are Georgie and Poppy Carlton, played by Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart, who have the advantage of being unrecognizable here. (They are not particularly famous at home, for that matter.) Georgie and Poppy are minor aristocrats, 50th and 51st in line for the British throne, fulfilling a dying wish of their father by getting to know the American people up close.
The opening episodes of their tour take them to Los Angeles and Boston. (Other stops will include Texas, New York, Nashville, Detroit and Washington, D.C.). In the former, they tour stars' homes by bikes ("Is the Playboy Mansion where that old man lives with his daughters?" asks Georgie), visit a plastic surgeon ("Can you make me look less like my mother?" Poppy wants to know) and the set of "The Bold and the Beautiful," where Poppy demonstrates her limited acting ability.
They also turn up at a supermarket where Fabio is pitching a new protein product. In Boston, they declare Paul Revere "a bit of a snitch," attend a Tea Party where they are served no tea and join a pickup baseball game, "one of their hobbies amongst starting fights in bars, that sort of thing." (The travelogue element is interesting in itself, despite the japery.)
There are many ways this sort of thing can go, from gentle fun to obnoxious provocation to satirical exposure of dangerous beliefs. At its lowest level, which is not necessarily its least funny, it is just poking something with a stick until it reacts. And though this can be interesting, even when it's not funny at all, sometimes it just reflects poorly on the person with the stick, coloring the humor with unearned superiority.
Fortunately, Gamble and Hoggart — whose characters are extraordinarily dim, though evidently not incredibly so — reflect most of the ridicule back on themselves. For all our cosmopolitan makeup, we are a parochial people; but we are also a trusting people, willing to take everyone at their word. One of the lessons of "Almost Royal," and similar shows, its that we tend to suffer fools, if not gladly, then with impressive patience.
Also, fortunately, Gamble and Hoggart can be quite funny in their pretended confusion. Their strategies are sometimes too obvious, but often the humor takes a nicely absurdist turn, as when they go to rent an automobile ("In England, we would call this a headlight").
"Put it into D for Drive," says the rental agent.
"D would be for Derek in England," says Georgie.
"How does that relate to driving?"
"My friend Derek's got a car." And he drives off at a mile an hour, into another car.
Where: BBC America
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)