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Landmark documentary filmmaker Philomena Cunk takes us on a historical odyssey in ‘Cunk on Earth’

In "Cunk on Earth," Philomena Cunk wonders whether the pyramids were designed to stop homeless people from sleeping on them.
In "Cunk on Earth," Philomena Cunk wonders whether the pyramids were designed to stop homeless people from sleeping on them.

Move over, David Attenborough. There’s a new British documentarian in town.

Philomena Cunk, a serious force in documentary filmmaking, has been in the business for a while, from 2014’s “Moments of Wonder” to 2016’s “Cunk on Britain.” Now, she’s taking on the world in “Cunk on Earth.” 

The five-part series is a stunning journey through history from cavemen to the Cold War. It's the greatest piece of media since the 1989 Belgian techno-anthem “Pump Up the Jam.”

Through the five-episode epic, Cunk asks experts the sort of hard-hitting questions Attenborough would never dare to ask. How did being shot in the head affect Lincoln’s ability to lead? How do you play an orchestra — do you blow into it, or is it one of those ones where you rub a stick on the strings? Perhaps most importantly, why don’t bicycles have toilets?

If you have dreams of developing a toilet-equipped bike, though, don’t. Cunk is already working on copywriting it.

The show, which premiered on BBC on Sept. 19, 2022, and on Netflix on Jan. 31, 2023, has a simple premise: why rely on an omniscient narrator who knows everything when it’s more fun and relatable to be guided through history by a bumbling idiot who knows nothing at all? 

And Cunk is the perfect bumbling idiot.

In the second episode, “Faith/Off,” Cunk sets out to settle the debate of which is better, Christianity or Islam. Instead, she goes on a nearly four-minute detour to a castle to explain in one shot how life would have been for her in medieval times — a feast laid out, flute music, Merlin being decapitated, Robin Hood, Gandalf, a dancing bear and, most importantly, “a space invader shitting a harpsichord made of glass horses onto the floor.”

What does this have to do with religion, I hear you ask. And I answer with a question of my own: why does it matter?

Cunk has high hopes for her new show. She starts every episode with a reference to the greatness of the previous episode or the show’s potential for awards. If there’s one thing a show host needs to ensure success, it’s confidence, and Philomena has it in droves.

Apart from nuclear weapons (which Cunk tragically learns still exist in episode four), Cunk isn’t phased by anything, keeping a straight face for most of the show. It truly takes an expert to deliver lines about the Titanic being the world’s first single-use submarine and Michelangelo omitting an anus on his statue of David without at least cracking a smile.

Surprisingly, none of the experts crack throughout the show, either. Sure, their hope for humanity may die a little with each misguided question, but they don’t let it show beyond their eyes. Even when Cunk goes on long-winded tangents about her mate Paul, her Aunt Carol or her ex-boyfriend Sean, the experts keep their cool.

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And in case you’re wondering, yes, they are real experts. And all they’re told is that they’re being interviewed for a BBC documentary.

Some experts come back for seconds, though. Laura Ashe, a professor of English from Oxford University, appears in both “Cunk on Britain” to speak about King Arthur and on “Cunk on Earth” to provide expertise on the Dark Ages.

My favorite expert, though, is Cambridge professor of Philosophy Douglas Hedley, who miraculously turns Cunk’s ideas about brain pipes and peas into a legitimate philosophical inquiry. 

Shout-out to Doug. You’re a real one for that.

“Cunk on Earth” may not teach you anything, but it’s a transformative two-and-a-half hour experience that simply can’t be missed.

Rating: 9.5/10