“Was early man similar to us. I mean, was he made out of the same sort of meat that we are? Did he have a brand name like ‘beef’ or ‘pork’?” This is one of the first questions our guide to human civilization, Philomena Cunk, poses to a rolling cast of hapless experts. In this case, her target is an archaeologist, author of “The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art,” who takes it in stride: “All we have is bones, of course, and they’re exactly the same as our bones,” he replies, going on from there. It’s a flabbergasting scene, sheer idiocy played with a straight face.
It’s also the opening salvo of the one mockumetary to rule them all: “Cunk on Earth,” a five-episode BBC production created by Charlie Brooker (perhaps in recompense for his execrable “Twilight Zone”-wannabe series “Black Mirror”) that recently made its way to Netflix.
Miss Cunk is a character portrayed by English actress Diane Morgan for more than a decade now, sure of herself and ignorant of just about everything. With supreme self-confidence, she takes her audience, episode by episode, through the defining moments of civilization, from the invention of writing to the moon landing, all the while displaying a brash certitude that doesn’t bother about such trifles as facts. Philomena Cunk single-handedly slays the urgency of fighting a culture war by demonstrating that there is no common culture. And she’s hilarious.
There have been great send-ups of American and British cultures before: Think “South Park” or “Monty Python.” What “Cunk on Earth” achieves is different. It tears down the notion that there is anything like a shared Western culture anymore — or even a possibility of any shared human culture.
Take episode “Mecha-Streisand,” in the first season of “South Park,” which pulls together bad American soft-pop, Japanese Kaiju flicks, and English new-wave music, all in a crashing dénouement complete with toppled skyscrapers. It’s great fun, making mockery of these strands of human artistry (though musician Robert Smith does come off as the hero). But it’s played for mere comedy. The implications of what it’s saying aren’t clear, if there are any at all.
“Cunk” shows its hand from the get-go: “Ancient people invented currency to make life on Earth easier, but in doing so we inadvertently invented capitalism, which is gonna kill everyone. Sorry, that’s not a question. It’s just something I read on Twitter.”
Cunk makes her statement. Her would-be interlocutor, a professor of ancient Middle Eastern history, blinks once. There is no conversation, because there is no possibility of any meeting of minds. You have to wonder if Cunk has a mind, properly speaking — a cultivated ground of thought and reason, fructified by past wisdom. Well, you don’t really — she doesn’t. What’s funny about it is that the show comes right out and shows us what it’s doing. History, as a concept, is here reduced to the noise of social media, at the hands of this glassy-eyed dolt. After history, the rest of human endeavor follows.
Taking on Faith
When the episode “Faith/Off” starts off with the ambition of proving which religion is better, Christianity or Islam, it meanders off into Cunk’s recounting of an accident that befell her friend Paul, who promised Jesus he’d believe in Him if he survived, but ended up with a fractured skull and both legs broken: “He said, ‘If I ever see Christ again, He’s a dead man,’” Cunk deadpans.
We’ve seen this before, of course, the mild blasphemy that makes our time’s abhorrence of the sacred seem like no big deal. It’s nothing so in-your-face as “Life of Brian,” just a little dabbling. Later, Cunk wanders across a desert landscape. Looking into the camera, she says, “Well, what can we say about Islam? For one thing —” and then the screen goes black, but for the text “THIS CONTENT IS NOT AVAILABLE IN YOUR COUNTRY,” set to Muzak. Fifteen seconds later, she’s back, still in the same bleak desert: “I, for one, don’t think any of that is controversial at all,” she tells the camera.
Of course, she wouldn’t. She doesn’t think at all. That’s the joke. The punchline: Who does, these days? Who thinks about religion, in the manner, even faintly, of an Aquinas or an Averroes? Who would bother setting Christianity against Islam, on a common intellectual ground, and letting them have it out?
Art and Science Lessons
Art follows, of course, as does science. Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” gets kicked to the curb: “Her neck’s very long. Was she part giraffe, or he just not do necks?” Cunk equates the invention of perspective in painting with the release of the “Crash Bandicoot” video game in 1996.
And from there, it’s on to the all-important questions of whether the Colt single-action Army revolver, the Colt .45, “would only kill people in the olden days,” and if it’s possible to ask the person recorded on an Edison cylinder “what it’s like where they are.” Top that off with the statements that “Henry Model T. Ford” was the one to conquer roads with his mass-produced automobile and that radioactivity was discovered by “female scientist Mary Curry.”
Morgan comports herself with such earnestness, and the various professors and archivists she interviews go along with her, mostly with a straight face. It’s just about the definition of absurdity, which only breaks the moment when a professor of imperial and military history disabuses her of the notion that the nuclear weapons possessed by various rival states are not, in fact, blanks, and informs her that the threat of annihilation by these weapons remains, even after Fat Man and Little Boy. She covers her face with her hand, and seems to pull back tears, then says, “Right, can we talk about something more cheerful?”
The Death of Human Culture
That’s it, in the end. Put another way: The death of human culture, as laid out by “Cunk on Earth,” is the desire, the need, to talk about something more cheerful, or maybe to skip talking altogether. Which would be why the show somehow ties every great advancement in human history to a video clip of the “Belgian techno anthem ‘Pump Up the Jam,’” which is stupid and cheerful and kills the possibility of having any kind of conversation, let alone a hard one. But if there are no hard conversations, there is no conversation, really, and if there is no conversation, there is nothing we have in common, except our meat and bones.
The optimists among us might see the show as a foretelling, a near-future in which we human beings have all but chucked our shared culture, doomed by our individual and collective choices to a stupid monadic existence, with nothing to look forward to but the bomb falling as we all gaze at our phones. Some, maybe calling themselves realists, would say we’re already there. So why fight a war, when there’s nothing to fight over? Have a laugh, before the mushroom clouds rise.