HBO has seen the future of television. And it is radio. OK, not exactly radio, but podcasts, the popular, downloadable audio shows that resemble radio in all but name. “The Ricky Gervais Show” (8 p.m., HBO) takes already-existing Gervais podcasts and animates them, offering cartoon images of Gervais, his collaborator, Stephen Merchant and their frequent guest and victim, Karl Pilkington.
The put-upon Pilkington is the straw that stirs this rather weak tea. He offers peculiar theories and observations on human reproduction, evolution, ghost stories and the history of monkeys in the space program, and Merchant and Gervais proceed to laugh at him and demolish his cracked logic, history and less-than-confident use of the English language.
Gervais’ podcasts can be pretty funny, but animation adds very little. In fact, it subtracts from their chief virtue, the fact that you can listen to them while driving, cleaning the house or doing just about anything else.
During its heyday, radio was considered a theater of the imagination that called on the audience to use their minds to paint the sets, provide the locations and costume the performers. In 1938, Orson Welles broadcast a fake newscast reporting a Martian invasion of the New Jersey meadowlands, and listeners allowed their fears to run wild.
Gervais’ podcasts hearken to a more recent school of popular radio, the theater of cruelty. There’s very little here that you haven’t heard on Howard Stern’s show or that of a thousand Stern imitators.
Oddly, animation is also a theater of imagination, a cheap way for comics and dramatists to portray the fantastic without the need for expensive sets or a cast of thousands. At its best, “The Simpsons” marries the mundane details of Homer’s daily life with a playful depiction of his musings, be they a daydream about eating his way through a German village made of chocolate, or a quasi-religious reverie about a heavenly ping-pong match between Benjamin Franklin and Jimi Hendrix.
“Gervais” offers a deliberate nod to the mid-century modern style of Hanna-Barbera. Gervais is the spitting image of Fred Flintstone. In fairness, some of Pilkington’s more crackpot tales are presented in rather fantastic cartoon form. But nothing about the show compelled me to stay on the couch. After awhile, I found myself listening to the banter while doing other things, sometimes in another room entirely. It was almost as good as listening to the radio.
Tonight’s other highlights
• A viral e-mail proves deadly on “Ghost Whisperer” (7 p.m., CBS).
• Figure skating takes center stage on Winter Olympics (7 p.m., NBC) coverage.
• An adult-film star loses sight of his health on “House” (7 p.m., Fox).
• Ben Stiller stars as a humiliated son-in-law in the 2004 comedy “Meet the Fockers” (7 p.m., ABC).
• Alison’s dark shades reveal ominous figures on “Medium” (8 p.m., CBS).
• A seafood restaurant lacks passion, direction and consistency on “Kitchen Nightmares” (8 p.m., Fox).
• Bank robbers engage in a fatal shootout with the FBI on “Numb3rs” (9 p.m., CBS).
• Daniel makes the talk-show circuit on “Caprica” (9 p.m., Syfy).
• A patron engages Spartacus in a potentially deadly bout on “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” (9 p.m., Starz).
• “Real Time with Bill Maher” (9 p.m., HBO) enters its eighth season.