Cuckoo (Series 1): A Review.
I was watching an episode of The Good Life last night. Now, that might seem like a strange way to start a review of the first season of the 2012 BBC Three comedy Cuckoo, starring Greg Davies and Andy Samberg (now available on Netflix) but hear me out. The episode in question was 'Mutiny' from the second series and focussed on Margo's participation in an amateur production of The Sound of Music, which inevitably turned into an embarrassing farce. The interesting thing about this episode is that you never actually see any of the play, only the build up and aftermath. This is a common trait of British sitcoms of the era, the big plot moments often happen offscreen, mostly due to budget constraints and time limitations. The writers and actors had to be skilled enough to making talking about an event funny enough to draw a show to a conclusion, rather than delivering an expensive and time consuming filmed version. How often do old comedies cut from the build up to an accident to the character involved suddenly being covered in bandages? It is perhaps a little cliché but the writing was often strong enough to carry the jump forward and the producers trusted the audience's ability to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.
Cuckoo series one affords us no such trust. Andy Samberg and Greg Davies are two talented comic actors, having been involved in Brooklyn 99 and The Inbetweeners respectively, yet are given little chance to demonstrate the true extent of their skill. The writing is far from terrible, it just lacks the subtlety that separates the wheat from the chaff in the sitcom world. It is, however, rather unfair to compare such a modern example of the form to the greats, especially when the medium has changed so much. It is perhaps more expedient to compare Cuckoo to a modern classic, such as the aforementioned The Inbetweeners, which was clearly an inspiration to the writers. The Inbetweeners never attempted to be subtle, the major incidents that capped episodes happened on screen rather than in the imagination. While we never saw Margo burst into Maria from West Side Story (but laughed at it anyway), we definitely saw Simon's left testicle hanging out at the fashion show. Whilst Cuckoo never takes us to those extremes, the audience are never given any blanks to fill in for themselves either.
The premise of the show is pretty straightforward: Andy Samberg plays Cuckoo, an American hipster traveller who met and married a British 20 year old woman (Tamla Kari) on a beach in Thailand and now lives wither her family, including horny teenage boy Dylan (Tyger Drew-Honey), excitable mother Lorna (Helen Baxendale) and uptight father Ken (Greg Davies) who is the shows main point of view character. Cuckoo's hipster ways and desire to be a spiritual guru profoundly annoys Ken and therein lies most of the comedy.
It has its funny moments and as a vehicle to see more of Greg Davies, it works reasonably well. Andy Samberg, however, is somewhat out of his depth in a playful British comedy and I never quite worked out of this was Jake Peralta's midlife crisis, backstory or an undercover operation. The humour mostly derives from the kooky foreigner failing to conform to British sensibilities and the effect this has on the family's patriarch (and others). Whilst there are some good laughs, at no point does the show ever get beyond this concept and after a few episodes it begins to wear thin.
The finest moments are the surreal ones, such as when Ken accidently shoots his father-in-laws cat, who Cuckoo has convinced everyone is the reincarnated form of the old man's late wife. Even this fun plot never fully delivers, with the push for a big onscreen moment producing only an unsatisfactory flourish, a little like finding a dead cat in a sports-bag. It is very much a show that could benefit from learning the lessons of older comedies and attempting a subtler approach. The cast surely contains enough comic actors with the expertise to pull this off and yet they are never given the chance to show us how good they can be.
Despite watching the entire first series, which culminates in a well produced stag night/wedding episode, I was not left hungry to see more, especially with the titular character not featuring in later seasons. What is Cuckoo without Cuckoo?
The show is a microcosm of the state of British sitcom in the 2010s where, with only a few notable exceptions, writers seek to find a contrived avenue to place a stand up comedian turned comic actor in as awkward a situation as they can imagine. As a formula it isn't necessarily a bad one but as the only formula it quickly becomes irksome. Here is hoping that the new decade will result in a change of direction for the genre.