The 'Black Mirror' creator and Diane Morgan, co-star of 'After Life,' bring their obliviously comic TV presenter to a five-part series about human progress.
The thing I appreciate most about Diane Morgan’s Philomena Cunk character, introduced as part of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe current events mockumentary series, is that once you have a character with the name Philomena Cunk, do you actually need anything else?
It’s a perfect comedy character appellation, with an overly flowery first name and a perfectly terse last name that contains multiple comedy “K” sounds and will always be adjacent to a somewhat taboo — less so in the U.K. — dirty word.
Then you get the actual character herself. Cunk was first presented as a dim-bulb interviewer/commentator in three- to five-minute segments that were characterized by her ignorance and spotty research. But then, somehow, the character and concept were enlarged upon in a number of half-hour specials, and then in the BBC Two series Cunk on Britain. Now her second extended series, Cunk on Earth (another BBC Two launch), has expanded the character so successfully and made her so relatable that the new show is coming to Netflix for exposure to global audiences who might have missed all her previous incarnations.
Sure, you can go on YouTube and watch most of Philomena Cunk’s previous TV appearances ahead of Cunk on Earth, or you can check them out after Cunk on Earth. But really it doesn’t matter, because Philomena Cunk has turned out to be increasingly funny the more Brooker and Morgan use her, which is far from normal when it comes to the expansion of initially one-note characters. And they’ve achieved this without sacrificing the character’s mockumentary core.
At five half-hour episodes, Cunk on Earth is a consistently droll, frequently delightful series that mixes high and low comedy at a breakneck pace. The punchlines don’t always land — in part because of inconsistency in the way the character has evolved — but if one observation feels too glib or one target feels too on-the-nose, don’t worry. Philomena Cunk will be moving right along to the next. By the end of these episodes, darned if I wasn’t seeing signs of actual emotion and depth poking through. They’ll make a real person of Philomena Cunk yet!
I wasn’t kidding about the pace of Cunk on Earth. Over the five episodes, the documentary-style series covers the whole of human progress from the first Homo sapiens — “We often assume early men were stupid, because they had big eyebrows and said ‘Ugg’ ” — to ancient civilizations to modern religions to the Dark Ages and the Renaissance to the global expansion of Western civilization to the Industrial Revolution to 20th century wars and 21st century technology. There’s so much material that Cunk on Earth can’t help but feel a little more superficial than Cunk on Britain, with its hints of exploratory depth. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t pleasures in to be had when Philomena Cunk embarks on a journey of exploratory breadth.
The conceit treats Cunk as a somewhat dead-eyed version of David Attenborough, traveling the globe — possibly for real and possibly just via greenscreen — and speaking with highly decorated experts about all the most important things related to civilization, including whether early humans had the same number of holes as we have, why society tends toward violent conflict, and the enduring pleasures of the video for Technotronic’s hit “Pump Up the Jam.”
Morgan, who Netflix viewers may know from Ricky Gervais’ After Life, is a confident performer with a varied range. She’s intentionally understated and even bland, but if it’s required by the bit, she’s capable of doing a pratfall down a sand dune or getting whacked in the head by a wooden plank wielded by a Jesus impersonator. The writing team, led by Brooker, gives Morgan silly non sequiturs and ridiculous mispronunciations — I’m still giggling at her pronouncing “Bible” as something closer to “Bibble” — but there’s a complicated, often casually tossed-off joke structure to her prattle, like praising the smartphone as “incredibly advanced and yet at the same time so simple a child can make one.”
I’m not sure that Cunk’s Marxist-adjacent skepticism — she’s particularly cynical about the expanding American empire — lines up with the character so much as with Brooker’s worldview, nor do I fully buy Cunk’s existential pain at realizing that Laika, the first dog in space, died while up there, but these are things that give the character nuance and offer a reminder of how good and full a performance Morgan is giving. It’s in the David Brent or Stephen Colbert — the guy from The Colbert Report, not the real guy — vein of committed obliviousness.
The series and the character are at their best in Cunk’s interviews with experts, as she politely, if somewhat indifferently, asks various Cambridge and Oxford educators questions like “Why do humans need to believe in something bigger than ourselves? Is it so we don’t feel quite so fat?” or “Why does humankind feel the need to invent killing machines like this? And could you keep your answer to a sort of sound-bite length?” Whether the experts exactly know what they’re getting into — some have been previous Cunk resources, while others are used in multiple chapters in this series — they mostly try to provide little educational highlights to counter their interviewer’s inevitable confusion. You won’t learn a lot from Cunk on Earth, but you’ll acquire little bits and pieces of trivia or historical connectivity.
The best of the interview subjects are even capable of finding intellectual depths in the stupidest of Cunk questions, which in turn frustrates Philomena Cunk, which in turn becomes even funnier. When an interviewee takes the time to show concern about Cunk’s cluelessness, rather than just simmering annoyance or frustration, it’s perhaps more than she deserves, but definitely what we, as viewers, deserve.
Within the format concept of Cunk being a landmark documentary presenter on a landmark documentary, Cunk on Earth tries occasionally to branch out in style. One episode has a very funny faux commercial that I won’t spoil — it made me laugh a lot. The episode on religion and the Dark Ages climaxes with a bizarrely imaginative one-woman fantasy sequence. A couple of smaller flourishes fall flat, but at least they don’t last long.
It’s mostly fun watching Brooker and Morgan figure out the new and different things they can do with this character. For American audiences, Cunk on Earth works as a no-context-required introduction. Worse comes to worst, it’s always just funny to say “Philomena Cunk.”