Does Britain make the best television in the world? At the high end, at least, I have to say yes. “Happy Valley,” “Landscapers,” “A Very English Scandal,” “Giri/Haji,” “I May Destroy You,” “Unforgotten” — in recent years, it’s been an unmatched bounty.
Not every show will be at those levels, but even the less-lofty British series that wash up on American screens tend to be reliably polished, imaginative and full of good performances. Here are three premieres from the past couple of weeks — a satirical mock documentary, a teenage supernatural adventure and a melancholy mystery — that uphold the standard.
‘Cunk on Earth’
The cultural stranglehold of “Cunk on Earth” since its American premiere on Jan. 31 is probably manifest only in certain circles, but I belong to one of them: It’s hard for me to turn around without being told that “Cunk” is the funniest show someone or other has ever seen.
Diane Morgan has been playing the clueless interlocutor Philomena Cunk on British TV for nearly a decade, but it was Netflix that saw the character’s export potential. The five-episode BBC series “Cunk on Earth” is a lovingly detailed parody of a familiar British product, the sweeping cultural history, that hasn’t changed much since Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation” 50 years ago.
A more recent reference point is the natural-history impresario David Attenborough; Cunk’s pronouncements on human history start out with the stentorian assurance of Attenborough’s musings on wombats and elephant seals. Her proclamation that “Cunk on Earth” will be “the incredible story of how humankind transformed our world from being a load of pointless nature” puts him in his place.
From there, the show’s comic strategy is simple but relentless; Morgan and her writers, led by the “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker, are nothing if not committed to the bit. Cunk is a more well-behaved, less self-assured, provincial English take on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, wielding literal-minded ignorance as a tool for both humor — from simple mangled pronunciations to cleverly raunchy one-liners — and jabbing social satire.
A crucial difference from Cohen’s high-wire method, however, is that Morgan’s interview subjects, a roster of actual British academics, are presumably in on the joke. No matter how bemused they might be in the moment by her harebrained questions (“What was ‘ren-ay-sauce’? Was that a sort of 16th-century ketchup?”), they are all playing along, and they are not going to be embarrassed.
That reflects a slightly uncomfortable truth about “Cunk on Earth”: As pointed burlesques of history go, it’s a selectively safe space. In the show’s progress from antiquity to social media, some subjects (like Christianity) come in for more abuse than others (like Islam); the World War II segment leaves out any reference to the Holocaust (though it makes room for an extended Hiroshima gag). There is a consistent feeling that it would like to sound provocative while not making its likely audience uncomfortable.
Perhaps that’s why I found most of “Cunk,” while frightfully clever and well made, and masterfully performed by Morgan, not quite funny enough. You can appreciate the finesse of a line like Cunk’s judgment on Beethoven — “How are we supposed to know what it’s about if it doesn’t have lyrics? It’s literally meaningless” — without feeling the urge to laugh.
Lines like that fall like rain in “Cunk on Earth” — one of the show’s signal qualities is the sheer, never-ending abundance of its jokes. It’s a little like shopping for erudite humor at Costco, a place a lot of my friends also love.
‘Lockwood & Co.’
This original Netflix adventure begins with a premise — an epidemic (of deadly ghosts) resulting in 50 years of societal upheaval and depression; a death counter running past a million — that is eerily Covid-resonant. But the series of supernatural-thriller novels by Jonathan Stroud on which the show is based began in 2013.
The pertinent influence for Stroud’s tales can be found not in epidemiology but in wildly popular young-adult literature: the Harry Potter novels, with their testy but true-blue relationships among three teenage heroes-in-the-making.
“Lockwood” doesn’t quite have the storytelling imagination of the Potter novels or of the best Potter movies. But as developed by Joe Cornish, director of the alien-invasion feature “Attack on the Block,” it’s very satisfying in its own straight-ahead manner — touching and quick on its feet, with an excellent performance by Ruby Stokes (the sixth sibling in “Bridgerton”) as Lucy, the female point in the typical two-guys-and-a-girl teenage-melodrama triangle.
The story’s animating plot device is that adults can’t see or hear the ghosts that are killing or incapacitating them; the spirits can only be sensed, and therefore fought, by certain gifted children (who lose the ability as they mature).
These special children — a standby of British fiction from Dickens through Blyton to Rowling — are, in Dickensian fashion, exploited for their talents in ghost-hunting agencies run by adults. The company of the title is an independent outfit consisting of the gallant teenage entrepreneur Anthony Lockwood (Cameron Chapman), the shy and brainy George (Ali Hadji-Heshmati) and Lucy, whose ghost-sensing abilities are prodigious.
Stokes nails the grace and strength of Lucy, an escapee from a particularly grim agency who arrives in London, finds a home with Lockwood & Co. and gradually entrances Anthony and George. She’s a pleasure to watch, even when the show’s laborious cosmology gets distracting and the action hits routine patches.
As important as Stokes’s work are the efforts of the production designer, Marcus Rowland (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Last Night in Soho”). The overstuffed, comfortably shabby but also darkly ominous interiors of Anthony’s mansion, home of Lockwood & Co., are essential to the show’s charm.
‘C.B. Strike: Troubled Blood’
Speaking of J.K. Rowling, the new season of the BBC series “C.B. Strike” — its fifth, labeled in America as its third — arrived Monday on HBO Max with virtually no notice, like a poor neighbor tapping into your Wi-Fi. Rowling writes the mystery novels on which the show is based (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) and is an executive producer of the series, and it seems likely that the controversy surrounding her views on transgender activism has affected the American streaming service’s eagerness to promote the show.
That’s unfortunate, because based on the first of the season’s four episodes, “C.B. Strike” is as intelligent, deeply felt, adroitly written and directed and wonderfully acted as ever. It is an exemplary British mystery, which is a high distinction.
Recent seasons of “C.B. Strike” (known as “Strike” in Britain), along with the novels they adapt, have been increasingly focused on family tragedy, and “Troubled Blood” continues the trend. A woman hires the stoic private eye Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) and his doughty partner Robin Ellacott (Holliday Grainger) to reopen the investigation of her mother’s disappearance in 1974. As they start in on the grief-laden case, Robin is being harassed by her angry husband about their divorce and Cormoran learns that a beloved aunt is dying of cancer.
The characters could be stereotypes, but as imagined by Rowling, adapted and directed by Tom Edge and Sue Tully, and definitively portrayed by Burke and Grainger, they’re fully dimensional. Cormoran’s quiet but volatile nobility and Robin’s deadly serious efficiency, masking a catalog of trauma, come from the inside; it takes no effort to believe them.
And while the cases can be grim — and while the sexually charged, sometimes testy relationship between Cormoran and Robin can take its toll on your emotions — “C.B. Strike” is ultimately a hopeful show, predicated on the dignity of the work the partners do and the solace they find in their friendship. An early scene in which a smiling Cormoran and Robin reunite, both at least momentarily escaping into the complexities of the case, is a purely joyous moment.