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

Netflix, in association with the BBC, has just unveiled a five part comedy mockumentary series called Cunk on Earth. Diane Morgan stars as the titular Philomena Cunk, a TV correspondent traveling the globe to talk about art, science, history, and other things. Its writers and producers include Charlie Brooker, co-creator of the fabulous "Black Mirror" anthology show.

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Other segments from the episode on February 3, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 3, 2023: Interview with Julie Otsuka; Interview with Victor Navasky; Review of Cunk On Earth

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Netflix, in association with the BBC, has just unveiled a really good series with a really bad title. It's a five-part comedy mockumentary series. And its writers and producers include Charlie Brooker, co-creator of the fabulous "Black Mirror" anthology show. This new program is much, much lighter and stars Diane Morgan as a TV correspondent traveling the globe to talk about art, science, history and other things. The correspondent's name is Philomena Cunk, which explains but doesn't justify this show's horrible title, "Cunk On Earth." In the United States, most of us are experiencing Diane Morgan for the first time. Unless you saw her as one of the supporting players in the Ricky Gervais comedy series "After Life," you might not recognize her. But in Great Britain, she's been on TV, especially playing one recurring character, for years.

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 "Daily Show" and part, if you want to go way, way back, "That Was The Week That Was." One of the featured players on "Weekly Wipe" was Diane Morgan, who played a TV correspondent named Philomena Cunk. She's not 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." You can find some of them on YouTube. And 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.

"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 Borat or Jiminy Glick. So 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 Diane Morgan as Philomena standing amid quiet nature and loud city streets, establishing the premise of her newest TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CUNK ON EARTH")

DIANE MORGAN: (As Philomena) This is our planet, planet Earth. It's a planet I'm literally on right now. And unless you're watching this on a long-haul flight or while falling off a building, chances are you are, too. This is the incredible story of how humankind transformed our world from being a lot of pointless nature, like this, to full of modern things, like this. And how it did it using nothing more than its hands and its imagination, and also tools and electricity and the internet.

It's a journey that will take me to every corner of the globe money and pandemic travel restrictions would allow, getting up close to some of our species' most stunning achievements. And I'll be asking questions - who are you? - to leading academics, clevernauts (ph) and expertists (ph) who will help me unlock the mystery of human civilization. Why do they say it's a mystery how the pyramids were built when it's obviously just big bricks in a triangle?

BIANCULLI: And, yes, this TV show spends the money to actually send her to Egypt, where she stands in front of the pyramids to deliver her opinions before interviewing an expert historian. Over the show's five episodes, she travels from Pompeii to Russia. She 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CUNK ON EARTH")

MORGAN: (As Philomena) But because I've been specifically asked to come here by the producers to look at cave art.

Cave paintings like these are one of the first examples of civilization on Earth. Don't worry, it gets better.

BIANCULLI: 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. Diane 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "YOUR MOTHER SHOULD KNOW")

BIANCULLI: We've got a real treat for you Monday on FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau will be at the piano to play and talk with us. He's one of the most prolific and acclaimed jazz pianists around. And he's recorded many albums featuring jazz and American popular song standards. For his latest album, "Your Mother Should Know," he plays the songs of the Beatles. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "YOUR MOTHER SHOULD KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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