Before the beginning of February, American viewers may have been forgiven for not knowing who Philomena Cunk was. The actress who plays her, Diane Morgan, was familiar enough thanks to her appearances in Ricky Gervais’ After Life and brief cameos in the Charlie Brooker-scripted Death to 2020 and Death to 2021. The one, the only, Philomena Cunk, however, remained a British phenomenon, much like Marmite and poor dentistry.
Yet Netflix, recognizing the universal brilliance of the Cunk character, stepped in to co-produce her new series, Cunk on Earth, with the BBC. It aired to an appreciative Britain last September — now the United States has the great privilege of seeing Cunk unleashed.
For the uninitiated, the set-up is simple but endlessly effective. Philomena Cunk is a globe-trotting television anchor who asks a range of experts questions of mind-blowing imbecility, or alternatively supplies her own ignorant commentary on matters of world history. The Pyramids, primitive cave paintings and — a particular comic highlight — mankind’s unstinting war against cows are all covered in the first episode. Over the course of five half-hour shows, Morgan-as-Cunk wages war against erudition, learning and accuracy: she is wholeheartedly on the side of ignorance.
As a comedy show, it’s as funny as anything in recent memory, thanks to a sharp script (co-written by everyone from Brooker and Morgan to Paddington contributor Jason Hazeley) that never oversteps the mark. The whole point about Cunk is that she doesn’t delight in her stupidity, but rather sullenly presents it as the status quo.
The one-liners are perfectly polished, but the greatest joy comes in Cunk’s exchanges with a range of scholars, academics and historians, all of them clearly in on the joke but responding to Cunk’s provocations and invincible ignorance with exactly the right mixture of disbelief, weariness and barely concealed scorn. Unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s not dissimilar Borat and Ali G characters, the point here is not to mock the unsuspecting guests. It’s to make us laugh at Cunk’s lack of any kind of engagement with the wider world: the title acquires its own irony.
Yet as ever with Brooker’s writing, there is a serious (or serious-ish) point beneath the humor. Standards of scholarship and engagement have fallen dramatically in popular history shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Once, we might have expected something like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which was unashamedly highbrow, to treat its viewers as sentient adults who were interested in the topics that Clark explored. Now, commissioning editors seem to be terrified of boring the audience. This means there are a lot of TV hosts who, despite wielding professorships and doctorates and bestselling books, talk down to those watching their shows in the most patronizing fashion imaginable. You can almost hear the network bosses: “make history sexy! Get a woman in! Make it go viral on TikTok!”
Philomena Cunk, as played so brilliantly by Morgan, is a middle-aged woman with a Northern British accent and a perpetual look of bored bewilderment. She would not be any streaming service’s first choice to front a populist show like Cunk on Earth — which is, of course, part of the joke. But beyond the many, many laughs, there’s a graver point to the satire. We are in the era of idiocy, where serious issues are approached frivolously or simply ignored, and where wokery comes in to mop up what’s left. We might treat Cunk on Earth as high comic satire — and we should — but reality isn’t very far behind. And that might yet cause our laughter to stick in our throats.