Cuckoo is a show where the father of a “normal” British family (they’re actually quite dysfunctional) has his life turned upside down when his daughter Rachel (Tamla Kari/Esther Smith) marries an American backpacker of the same name. The show takes a dip in quality between the first and second season, and many critics claim this is because of the recasting of Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor Andy Samberg with Twilight’s Taylor Lautner. While this recasting is a bit unorthodox, ultimately, the shows complete misunderstanding of Samberg’s original character, and overreliance on, I kid you not, PTSD humor, is what makes the second (and subsequent seasons) truly awful.
If you haven’t seen the first season of the BBC’s Cuckoo (now streaming on Netflix), then I highly recommend it. Andy Samberg’s Cuckoo plays an idiot guru that every episode makes trouble for the properly British patriarch Ken Thompson (Greg Davies). Ken is selfish, though he likes to think that he’s not, and is constantly budding heads against Cuckoo’s altruism.
This tension is best illustrated in episode five of the first season, Connie Sings. The Thompson family is at a dinner party with neighbors Connie and her husband Steve, who are both estate agents (real estate agents for you Americans), and Cuckoo promptly states that he believes all houses should be free.
“Connie, I would rather the global economy collapse around us in flames than one man slept on the streets tonight.”
Connie tries to laugh this off as a flawed idea that would collapse the entire economic system, but Cuckoo doesn’t bother with providing an intellectual argument — he knows homelessness is wrong — and instead goes to the emotional core of Connie’s investment in the system he knows hurts people.
“Connie where is all this anger coming from?…You know, I’ve met a bunch of people like you before. Somehow, somewhere along the way you lost sight of your dreams, and its left you really angry and super mean.”
And he’s right. Connie always wanted to be a singer, and after being told by her husband and earlier influences that that was “unrealistic,” has clung to the mores of capitalism as a justification for preserving the status quo. Cuckoo cuts through this, and throughout the episode, actively encourages her to follow her dreams. The show plays this off for laughs, but Samberg’ strong acting makes us truly believe that he has a point.
In fact, even though we are supposed to see everything from the father’s perspective, from a plot standpoint, Cuckoo is validated. Connie gets a gig and leaves her husband for a more supportive man. Maybe just maybe, we think for however briefly, the emotional arc of the show won’t be Cuckoo “normalizing” to the proper British way of life, but the father Ken coming to realize that Cuckoo has something to say after all.
It’s only when the second season airs and Cuckoo dies that we retrospectively come to understand that it was Andy Samberg’s sincerity that hid the writer’s resentment towards “liberal nonsense.” Connie wasn’t providing the other side at that dinner for narrative fairness. She was the show’s point of view.
As the father remarks disdainfully of a family hugging at a wake in season 2:
“They’re Quakers, aren’t they? Progressives. Huggy. Huggy.”
The character that replaces Cuckoo is Cuckoo’s son Dale whose in the UK trying to track down his father after living all his life in India. He soon learns his dad has died after falling from a mountaintop in Asia, and the family takes him in after the cult Dale’s a member of is disbanded by the authorities (more on this soon). Dale is nothing like Cuckoo, except, from a Western standpoint, both of them being “weird” and kooky.
Where Cuckoo was resistant to Ken’s guidance, Dale likes Ken and believes he should be respected more — e.g., Dale constantly slaps Ken’s son Dylan Thompson (Tyger Drew-Honey) for showing insubordination to his father.
Where Cuckoo was self-assured in what he had to say (even if it was often wrong), Dale’s identity is whatever someone tells him it is. A fact that leads him to join multiple cults, a Chinese mafia, and an abusive business partnership with the family’s “friendly” neighbor Steve.
In more competent hands, this shift in characters would have been a clever way to narratively realign the story’s structure. Great shows such as Babylon 5 have improved dramatically after their titular character was recast in the second season.
Cuckoo is not one of those shows.
What made the original Cuckoo great was that he was often factually wrong, but morally in the right. Homelessness is kind of a bad thing, and Connie does deserve to follow her dreams and sing. This tension between the father’s “practicalness” and Cuckoo’s pseudo-intellectualism created a brilliant dissonance that played a key part in the comedy throughout the first season.
The show, however, seems to think that what made the character Cuckoo actually funny was him being “weird.”
Dale is a cult survivor. He lived all his life on a compound in India that forced the men to do manual labor while the religion’s founder raped the women members.
Isn’t that weird? How eccentric!
There was no sense of privacy so Dale often had to watch these women be raped, and none of the members were allowed to leave!
There were strictly enforced rules, and if anyone broke them, they were tied to a pole for days on end!
Hilarious. I might piss myself!
In all seriousness, Dale has gone through some very serious trauma, and the way the show treats him is terrible. There isn’t a way for this actor to make this material good, and blaming Taylor Lautner for not being an effective “straight man” in a series of PTSD survivor jokes is flawed logic. Meryl Streep could read these lines, and the humor would still fall flat on anyone that has, well, empathy.
The family members view Dale dismissively, especially the father, who, in another creative’s hands, might have been recast as the show’s villain. Ken clearly has neither empathy for Dale nor his family, and constantly does the most selfish course of action without ever changing. In one episode, Dale is chastised by Ken for telling his wife Lorna (Helen Baxendale) the truth about how Ken has violated his diet, and the dialogue is just cringeworthy.
“I’m waiting for you to explain to me why you told Lorna [my wife] about the kebob…I know your upbringing was slightly unusual, but you must have had to lie before?…”
No, Ken, liars were strung up on a pole for days on end as a form of punishment. Of course, he never lied. He didn’t have an “unusual” upbringing. It was an abusive one.
It bears noting that this dynamic never changes. Throughout the series, Dale shows alarming forms of behavior that the family reacts to with mere nods. He cuts himself at a dinner party. He has a mental breakdown over a stranger he has never known. He self-flagellates himself for using the Internet. He casually brings up a story at dinner about how he had to snap an elderly dog’s neck.
I have seven pages of examples that I had to cut for brevity.
These jokes are constant, and outside a “will-they-or-won’t-they” love triangle Dale has with Ken’s daughter Rachel Thompson, there is no emotional development. Dale never goes to therapy. The family never treats his condition as anything more than eccentric, even though the dialogue has established that he is a survivor of very traumatic abuse.
Much like The Big Bang Theory, another maligned show whose primary source of humor is making fun of the femininity of its “nerdy” cast members, Cuckoo’s primary source of humor is laughing at the misfortunes of an abused man.
In fact, the characters that do attempt to therapize Dale and the other family members are viewed as incompetent. These overly emotional busybodies include a wannabe therapist for a neighbor and an “annoying” policeman that wants to make sure the family is emotionally okay after an alleged robbery.
“Isn’t checking on the emotional stability of those around you just the worst?” the show asks again and again.
If you’ve never seen Cuckoo, I would recommend watching the first season and then stopping immediately. I have seen all five current seasons, and I will never forgive myself. The humor is bad, and the show has no intention of improving itself. If anything the show has doubled down on these caricatures to the point of banal absurdity.
TL; DR — don’t watch it.
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