If you are chronically online, odds are you have seen clips over the past few months of Diane Morgan’s character Philomena Cunk from the Netflix mockumentary Cunk on Earth. The most notable of these soundbites went viral on TikTok and features Morgan’s character asking Oxford art history professor Martin Kemp, “which was more culturally significant: The Renaissance or Single Ladies by Beyoncé?” The pre-release hype surrounding the series, which premiered Jan. 31, prompted great anticipation in me—so much excitement that I decided to become a television critic for a day.
In five half-hour episodes, the show ambitiously promises to retrace the entire history of human civilization. Through interviews with academics and narrated walks across historical sights, our socially unaware, dim-witted narrator Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) ultimately failed to make me do anything but blow air out of my nose slightly harder than usual.
My biggest gripe with the series is that the premise could have been better executed—instead, it just feels like a misspend of who knows how many millions of Netflix’s dollars. If only some of the money spent on shooting on location could have been invested in paying some decent comedy writers, I don’t think I would be here writing this review. A sizable gap in the humour comes from the time Cunk wastes asking guests idiotic questions. Before anyone argues that that is exactly the point of the show, I would contend that while there are some funny moments in the interviews, most of the segments are wasted on jokes that do not land.
The Sacha Baron Cohen–esque humour that Cunk attempts is only funny in the context of secrecy and unassuming participants. Cunk on Earth’s version feels too scripted, and the expert reactions do not mesh with Cunk’s attempts at levity. This is apparent in the section on the Olympic games, where Cunk interviews Dr. Lindsay Coo, a senior lecturer in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at the University of Bristol. Cunk launches into a mini tirade about the audience at the first Olympic games being able to see “right up their (athletes’) bumholes” (since athletes were competing naked), to which Coo doesn’t really have any significant reaction. The lewd quality of this joke is the rule rather than the exception with the humour in this documentary. Perhaps the jokes might have landed better if the audience was better introduced to Philomena Cunk as a character, or if the expert’s reactions, while they were being interviewed, were less contrived. But, in its current form, the interviews feel like a repetitive misuse of audience time and expert talent.
The documentary reaches a point of diminishing returns with Cunk’s attempts at situational humour. In the fourth episode of the series, “Rise of the Machines,” Cunk interviews Jonathan Ferguson, keeper of firearms and artillery at the Royal Armouries. She spends actual airtime asking him what would happen if she looked straight down the barrel of the gun, and very cleverly questioning the idea of the American Constitution protecting the right to bear arms—since bears don’t have arms (Philomena, we all heard this joke in 2006). In her full interview with Kemp, she asks about the “renaissauce”, and with medieval historian Laura Ash of the University of Oxford, about the “darkages” instead of the Dark Ages. For McGill students, Cunk reminds me of those peers in your lecture who just cannot help but annoy the class with their blend of confidence and stupidity, the ones that make you wonder, “are they actually still talking right now?”
Some of the dry humour, however, did make me laugh. For example, Cunk describes the guillotine as “the most humane way to decapitate someone in front of a jeering crowd” and explains to her audience that Jesus Christ became a carpenter since he was named after the two words one is most likely to utter after hitting their finger with a hammer. From Jesus to Louis XVI, she runs the gamut of human civilization, as promised, but fails to touch on any interesting aspects.
Ultimately, the heartening opportunity to produce something that is both educational and comedic was thrown away. Cunk on Earth is best consumed through shortened TikTok clips, as watching it in its entirety feels like a waste of time.