In 2012, Andy Samberg starred in a British comedy called Cuckoo, playing a kooky character named… Cuckoo. After only one season, Samberg took a detour into policing Brooklyn in a manner both amusing and innocuous, and Cuckoo resumed without him in 2014 (his title character was seemingly killed off in a hiking accident in the Himalayas.) Without Samberg, though, it seemed the show’s entire premise had been lost. What was Cuckoo to do without its Cuckoo? But then along came Taylor Lautner, werewolf star of Twilight, playing the long-lost son of Samberg’s character. Lautner filled the void Samberg left while ensuring that the show could stick to its familiar sitcom formula: Lautner’s character’s new age proclivities, his tendency to catalyze chaos, and his burgeoning relationship with the show’s central family’s daughter mirrored everything Samberg’s character did, while also slightly altering the comedic dynamic of the series. And as of yesterday, the show is available to binge as a “Netflix Original.” A lot of England has already watched and seemingly — from its three-season run and high ratings on BBC 3 — liked it. But should you?
Beyond the question of whether replacing the titular character with another similar character in the second season exposes the show as a purposeless meeting of dull archetypes, perhaps it’s best to start with the question of whether Cuckoo was any good to begin with. This is a question that can be answered pretty quickly, once you realize how much the show hastily starts relying on a running joke about potatoes… and then continues to do so. Potatoes are among the funnier echelon of vegetables, but the need to be self-referential about potato humor across two seasons betrays a dearth of other memorable jokes.
The show’s original premise involved a middle class British family’s 20-year-old daughter, Rachel (played by Tamla Kari), going on a backpacking excursion, during which she meets, falls in love with, and marries the nightmare of a person one might fear meeting while backpacking. (This is all shown in montage form.) The series truly begins when she shows up back at her family home and announces their union.
The new husband in question is Dale, aka Cuckoo (Samberg), an American nomad meant, for too-transparent comic purposes, to highlight and amplify the middle class Britishness of the rest of the cast. Cuckoo moves into the house, has loud sex with Rachel, meditates naked on the kitchen counter, woos the matriarch (Helen Baxendale) and infuriates the patriarch (Greg Davies) and is perplexed, and eventually wooed himself, by jacket potatoes. While everyone else plays their roles with charming and adept sitcom hamminess, Samberg takes it to another, mostly unfunny level (with material that’s, in his defense, already pretty unfunny), playing each joke with so much emphasis on punchline that it’s reminiscent of that “funny guy” in the high school play.
The whole premise is reminiscent of an old comedy model set by Molière’s Tartuffe, in that it charts a spiritual charlatan’s farcical invasion of a bourgeois family through a romance with their daughter. But Samberg never attempts to give a stereotypically written character humanity, playing him so broadly as to expose every facet of the age-old comedy formula. Centering the family’s small episodic crises around a character so two-dimensional he might as well be played by a Furby in tie-dye makes it hard to empathize with the rest of them. Add to that the exhausted gender tropes — the cynical father who rejects the wild man, the mother who’s a little titillated by the wild man and annoyed by her husband’s pessimism, and the daughter gullible enough to fall for someone who says he’s going to write a book that’ll change the world but who thinks the Nazis all died of a flu — and you’d be smart to stop right here before watching at all.
However. Something happens in Series 2. It’s not nearly as big of a something as it should be, given that the something of which I speak is the replacement of the titular character… with Taylor Lautner. But it’s enough of a shift to make the show go from wholly obnoxious to marginally watchable fluff. This may be an unpopular opinion: but yes, at least on this particular show called Cuckoo, Twilight’s Taylor Lautner is a better comic actor than Andy Samberg.
The decision to replace Samberg with a different-but-same-ish character is fascinating: the producers could have just swapped the two actors and kept the character, as they do with the daughter (portrayed as a far more self-possessed, less whiny and admittedly two-years-older person by Esther Smith). Instead they went through the trouble of killing off the one character… but resurrecting him in spirit as his own son.
Perhaps the creators likewise saw this as an opportunity for revision. Lautner’s character, Cuckoo’s long-lost son who grew up on a cultic ashram, is — like the man who allegedly created him at age 13 — disconnected from contemporary British notions of the “real world” and is wont to go into New Agey flights of fancy, doing things that send the family into states of disarray (including developing a romance with Cuckoo’s widow, who he calls “Mom”). But while Samberg’s Cuckoo seemed to have been written as an id lacking an inner monologue — more just a hippie-ish obstacle each episode could throw at the family — his son Dale is just socially naive, due to all the broad-comedic things that are implied he did (“Vashradi would take a special magical powder and intercourse with the womenfolk all day!”) and didn’t do (shave! Hahahaha beards!) while on the ashram.
While Samberg spoke his lines so we could see the machinations of the scripts — “make the stuffy patriarch angry here, beguile the repressed feisty matriarch here” — Lautner, former werewolf, makes for a subtler foil to the family. The hijinx may not reach as high, and this creates a line between being a somewhat dumb comedy in Series 1 and a perhaps-too-conventional comedy in Series 2. Ultimately, Lautner’s surprisingly skilled performance can’t save the show whose premise is as simple as “normative family gets frustrated and/or taps into their wild side due to the sudden presence of man with facial hair.” Even if, after the current season, Lautner’s character were to be killed off and replaced with Daniel Day Lewis playing his son, I’m still not sure Cuckoo would be worth your time.