Why are we here? How did we get here? What is our purpose? Humankind has always had a deep yearning to find the answers to these empirical questions. To make sense of where we're going and to find meaning in our existence, we must first understand how we started on this strange journey called life. Now especially, in this seemingly unhinged era of deadly airborne viruses, UFOs floating over North America, and political unrest and upheaval, there's a compelling desire for us to connect with our past, so we can make better sense of our present and feel empowered to face our future.
There are dozens of award-winning documentaries that have taken on the formidable task of retracing our origins and explaining our place in the universe, like Amazon's Dawn of Humanity and The History Channel's Mankind: The Story of All of Us. But none can compare to Netflix's Cunk on Earth, a kind of David Attenborough anthropological narrative with a Daily Show twist. It's the mockumentary series that looks at mortal man's place in the history of the world and says, "We have no idea what's really going on," and it's precisely the show we need right now.
The Hopelessly Inept Philomena Cunk
From the radiant minds of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and writers Ben Caudell and Eli Goldstone (Death to 2021), and featuring the priceless Diane Morgan (After Life), Cunk on Earth sets out to lampoon those stuffy historical chronicles frequently seen on PBS, and in its own twisted way, succeeds in making the absurd seem perfectly logical. Morgan portrays "landmark documentary presenter" Philomena Cunk, a hopelessly inept television narrator who, as she tells it, is on "a journey that will take me to every corner of the globe money and pandemic travel restrictions would allow." While Philomena is steadfastly earnest in her pursuit of information and facts, she's often limited by her own worldview, which seems to consist of what she gleans from social media.
She refers to the invention of the wheel as an early example of an "app," she calls hieroglyphics "emojis," and she wonders aloud if someone shouting out what was written on an ancient stone tablet could be considered the first instance of an audiobook. In an episode exploring the life of Christ, Philomena notes, "During his lifetime, Jesus only had 12 followers, fewer even than my uncle Steve's uninspiring Instagram account." Philomena's observations are ludicrous, yet her sincere dedication to the simplistic interpretations of what she perceives makes it all seem, in the most asinine of ways, perfectly reasonable.
A Mockumentary Featuring Actual Historical Experts
As Philomena travels to her various destinations, she interviews actual professors and historians, and this is where Cunk on Earth is at its brilliantly hilarious best. These experts are fully aware that Morgan is playing a character, but their interviews aren't scripted, and they're encouraged to answer Philomena's questions honestly and seriously, providing as much knowledge about their areas of proficiency as possible. While most of these scholars play along good-naturedly, doing their best to respond to Philomena's ridiculous queries by straightforwardly enlightening her with facts and historical context, there are moments when even they can barely hold it together. Take, for example, Dr. Nigel Spivey, Classical Art and Archeology Professor at Cambridge, who bristles after Philomena asks him if lions in Ancient Rome suffered from mental health issues as a result of feeding on screaming Christians, or Dr. Ruth Adams, Professor of Cultural and Creative Industries at King's College, who can't suppress her laughter when Philomena ponders whether audiences might have suffered strokes at the sight of Elvis Presley nude below the waist.
A victim of a limited attention span, Philomena is repeatedly sidetracked during her interviews, going off on tangents and telling rambling stories about her friend Paul or ex-boyfriend Sean, or asking questions like, "Did mummies ride bicycles?" then admitting she doesn't really know why she asked the question in the first place. In many ways, Philomena represents today's distracted, smartphone-addicted members of society, unable to focus when the subject gets a bit too heady or when it simply becomes uninteresting. "It was so long ago," Philomena laments to one historian, "Why should I care?" Philomena, in fact, says the things we wish we could say when we become lost in the din of higher education. So in Cunk on Earth, she becomes the spokesperson for those who would like to learn more, but who just don't have the personal commitment.
Philomena's Intellectual Limits Often Bring Out Blatant Truths
For all of her gravitas as a hard-hitting documentarian, Philomena is woefully clumsy when it comes to the English language, referring to "pharaohs" as "ferals," "inventors" as "inventorers," and the man who discovered America as "Christopher Colombo." There's something endearing about watching her repeatedly call the Titanic the "Titan 1C" with outright conviction, and as Philomena bounces across the globe, mangling the spoken word with every step she takes, viewers eagerly anticipate what terms and phrases she's likely to enthusiastically massacre next. In a curious way, however, Philomena's intellectual simplicity often serves as a blatant truth serum, especially when it comes to her exploration of historical events like slavery.
Giving an overview of the Civil War, Philomena tells viewers, "The North had to decide what kind of America it wanted to live in: one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn't." On women gaining the right to vote in 1920, she declares, "Finally, women could choose which man would tell them what to do." When discussing John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis with a war historian, she somewhat astutely points out, "It's ironic that he was so concerned about Cuban missiles when it was a gun in Texas he should've been worried about." But Philomena saves her most shrewd commentary for her exploration of Ancient Egypt. Clearly vexed by the world's fascination with the pyramids, she asks an authority on the subject, "Why do they say it's a mystery how the pyramids were built when it's obviously just big bricks in a triangle?" And when investigating their elaborate entombing rituals, Philomena quite rationally declares, "The Egyptians believed the most significant thing you could do in your life is die." It's Cunk on Earth's ability to bring out the most coherent points amidst Philomena's most seemingly incoherent moments that make it so hysterically entertaining.
The Show is Funniest When Philomena Manages to Learn Something
Philomena does her best to present herself as an objective documentarian, delivering her stories in the style of a rigid, emotionless lector, but she's not without moments where she actually manages to learn something and her guard comes down. In a discussion with a professor of imperial and military history, Philomena is horrified to learn that Russian war missiles aren't blanks and that the world is still under threat of nuclear attack. Rendered nearly speechless and on the verge of tears, she asks the professor if she can change the subject and talk about her favorite musical group, ABBA, instead. When she's told that Laika, the first dog to be launched into space in 1957, overheated and died within hours into the flight, she becomes outraged and indignant. "There's a dead dog in space!" she exclaims. "There's a dead dog somewhere in the back of a frame of every film shot in space, like Star Wars. There are dead dogs in Star Wars. That is unacceptable." She then asks for a moment of silence for little Laika.
Despite her utter foolishness, viewers can't help but feel for Philomena as she laments the uncomfortable truths of history. Even her prudishness is charming, like when she asks if there's a more modest version of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man sketch available where the man is wearing underpants, or when she contemplates all the unpleasant things attendees at the first Greek Olympics, where men competed in the nude, may have been subjected to visually. And in every episode of Cunk on Earth, Philomena reminds viewers of the historical significance of her favorite early 1990s dance hit, Technotronic's "Pump up the Jam." In a true example of "life imitates art" that could only happen in Philomena Cunk's slightly daft world, the 33-year-old song is now being introduced to a whole new audience, with the "Pump up the Jam" video recently hitting 277 million views on YouTube.
Cunk on Earth is that rare gem of a mockumentary that makes viewers laugh until they cry, not only because it's so wickedly funny, but because it's also so perfectly relatable. Yes, Philomena is at times a complete blockhead given to such inane verbal reflections as, "In his later years, Beethoven was profoundly dead," but because so many of her reflections are also completely accurate, like when she asserts, "In the early 20th century, social scientists discovered something incredible - that a woman could do anything a man could do without needing to talk about it." Cunk on Earth speaks to the semi-engaged history buff within all of us. Here's hoping Philomena Cunk returns for a second season and continues to lead viewers on her unbalanced exploration of our unbalanced world.