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Clunky title aside, 'Cunk on Earth' is a mockumentary with cult classic potential

Ill-informed TV correspondent Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) travels around the world in <em>Cunk on Earth.</em>
Andrea Gambadoro
Ill-informed TV correspondent Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) travels around the world in Cunk on Earth.

Diane Morgan stars in the new five-part Netflix mockumentary series Cunk on Earth, but viewers in the U.S. might not recognize her — unless they saw her as one of the supporting players in the Ricky Gervais comedy series After Life. But in Great Britain, Morgan's been on TV for years, especially playing one recurring character.

Ten years ago, Black Mirror co-creator Charlie Brooker wrote and hosted a British comedy series, Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe. It was a satirical review of the week's news — part The Daily Show, and part, if you want to go way, way back, That Was the Week That Was. Morgan was one of the featured players on Weekly Wipe, playing a TV correspondent named Philomena Cunk. Cunk isn't very well-informed, and she's prone to mispronunciations and malapropisms, but she says what she thinks — and what she thinks is often very, very funny.

In the U.K., the character was then spun off into several sequels, either limited series or one-shot specials: Cunk on Shakespeare, Cunk on Britain, Cunk and Other Humans. They all have the same winning formula: Philomena is sent to real exotic locations around the world, to offer her observations and interview actual experts — all of whom are polite and befuddled in equal measure.

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Cunk on Earth is in the same sweeping, visually stunning tradition of such historical documentaries as Civilisation or Connections – except the correspondent and interviewer is less Kenneth Clark or James Burke, and more Borator Jiminy Glick. That's the setup — and you don't have to have any prior exposure to Philomena Cunk to get up to speed instantly.

The opening of Cunk on Earth cuts between scenes of Philomena standing amid quiet nature and loud city streets, establishing the premise of her newest TV show. Over the show's five episodes, she travels from Pompeii to Russia to the Pyramids in Egypt. Philomena shoots one segment in front of the Mona Lisa, and, for another, descends into a cave to look at ancient cave paintings, just as Werner Herzog did in one of his documentaries. But he was in awe. Philomena, shining her flashlight onto the crude drawings of animals and people, is so unimpressed, she turns her flashlight off.

Despite her lack of enthusiasm and perspective, Cunk on Earth does contain a lot of actual information — thanks to the endlessly patient experts, who gently correct her misconceptions. Morgan's delivery is deliciously dry, and her improv skills, reacting to what historians say in their interviews with her, are formidable. She gets a writing credit for additional material, and absolutely deserves it.

Black Mirror came over from England as an oddball series and an acquired taste, and quickly grew into a cult hit. This new, wider Netflix platform for Cunk on Earth may accomplish the same thing. It's a terrible title — but it's a really funny show.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.