This review contains spoilers.
1.1. The Homecoming
Ken and Lorna Thompson are thrilled. Their daughter, Rachel, is finally on her way back from a gap year spent on the beaches of Thailand. An academic star with a place on a medical course waiting for her, Rachel’s all set to do great things, and her parents motor down to the airport ready to welcome their golden girl back to her charmed life. Unfortunately, Rachel’s brought back a little more than excess baggage and a suntan. Ken, the doting dad, is about to see a dark shadow loom over his little girl’s carefully planned existence. It belongs to her new husband, the man she’d been telling them about on Facebook for weeks – sadly, her dad doesn’t do social media, hence the surprise. Her alarming other half is a Californian hippie, spouts New Age mysticisms as if they were going out of fashion (all right, so they went out of fashion in the 70s, but still…), has been travelling for twelve years and gives every indication of being permanently high.
He is, quite simply, Cuckoo.
In this opening episode of six, we witness the immediate fallout of Cuckoo and Rachel’s arrival at the family home. Lorna’s quickly won over by her son-in-law’s airy charms, but Ken is suspicious, and devastated by Rachel’s intentions to switch universities, as she excitedly tells her parents that she plans to get her medical training and then go to work in a warzone, with Cuckoo by her side. Cuckoo’s impromptu speech to the family on his love for his wife is rather too detailed for Ken’s liking (Rachel is apparently ‘warm inside’ and, most importantly, ‘grateful’), while Lorna wins her son-in-law’s favour with her recipe for jacket potatoes, a new concept for the self-styled ‘spiritual ninja’. Sadly for the wincing Ken, Cuckoo’s equally vocal when it comes to the satisfaction of his other appetites, and his first night chez Thompson is punctuated by the kind of screams and thrashing more characteristic of an exorcism than conjugal bliss.
The following morning, Ken plans to take Cuckoo for a bonding trip out, but his plans quickly go awry. His son-in-law doesn’t take kindly to being woken before noon, and, though he’s immediately full of apologies for hitting Ken in the face, their wander in a local beauty spot doesn’t go well. Cuckoo is dismissive of the Midlands’ quiet charms after the wonders of Thailand, and antagonises Ken still further when a quiet drink down the pub leads to an airing of Cuckoo’s vision for the coming months… and years. He’ll begin to write his magnum opus, a book that will ‘solve all the world’s problems’, while Ken, chosen by Mother Nature to be a provider, brings home the organically reared bacon for his more cerebral son-in-law. Cuckoo’s certainty of his own status as a thinker for the twenty-first century isn’t shared by Ken, who takes the opportunity to put him straight on a few matters. He may consider himself above taking payment for his, erm – unique skillset, but that’s going to have to change, and fast.
The mismatched pair return home under a cloud, and Ken’s soon on the receiving end of a furious outburst from Rachel, who believes in her husband’s harebrained schemes and is prepared to do anything to support him. She flounces out, leaving Ken to stew. The only possible way out of the situation is offered by Rachel’s brother, Dylan, who cynically suggests that Ken should pay Cuckoo off. After all, he can’t really be in love with Rachel, can he? Lorna angrily dismisses the idea, but Ken is thoughtful, and is soon at the bank withdrawing his savings. He gets Cuckoo alone and puts the idea to him, stressing the importance of Rachel’s studies and telling Cuckoo how much happier everyone would be if he only went back to Thailand. The young idealist is reluctant at first, but a seed of doubt is sown by Ken’s pleas, and he finally agrees to take the money. Ken waves him off, and later consoles a bereft Rachel by telling her that Cuckoo loves her, but has realised their relationship could never work.
We see Cuckoo wandering the streets, cutting rather a sad figure and looking totally out of place. Searching for something familiar, he buys a jacket potato from a van – and inspiration strikes. That evening, Ken’s horrified to see a distinctive figure outside the house. It’s Cuckoo, the proud owner of a positively bargainous £10,000 potato van. He explains that he took Ken’s advice on board; if he’s ever going to provide for Rachel, he needs to start working. Ken’s forced to save face by pretending that he’d planned for Cuckoo to do this all along, and that lying to Rachel and Lorna was all part of his masterplan. The bonfire he’s made of all Cuckoo’s possessions was just the finishing touch to his scheme…
In many respects, Cuckoo’s a thoroughly British production, with its suburban setting, the premise of a conventional family turned upside down by an interloper, and a cast of familiar faces (Greg Davies of The Inbetweeners as Ken, Cold Feet stalwart Helen Baxendale as Lorna, and Outnumbered’s Tyger Drew-Honey as young Dylan). However, there’s one major difference. The kooky Californian at the show’s heart is played by none other than Saturday Night Live veteran Andy Samberg, star of the criminally underrated Hot Rod and member of the magnificent comedy band, The Lonely Island. British viewers may not recognise the name, but you’re sure to have seen at least one of the videos: ‘I’m On A Boat’, ‘Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions’, ‘Great Day’… Comedy aficionados will be over the moon at the BBC’s major coup in bagging Samberg, even for this brief showing.
The only slight problem is that, as usual, the rubber-faced comedy legend pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Davies, however, really holds his own here, and the one-on-one scenes between Ken and Cuckoo work brilliantly; there’s already a hint of an odd-couple rapport beneath the surface personality clash, and Cuckoo’s vision of Ken as a particularly awkward disciple promises big laughs to come. Under the hippie trappings, Cuckoo – real name Dale Ashbrick – might not be all that different from his bewildered father-in-law. Ken prizes the trappings of his middle-class life, but does Cuckoo’s abandonment of the rat race for a life of nude meditation and peyote trips secretly appeal to him? It’ll be interesting to see which perspective on life wins out. Cuckoo’s past is intriguing, and a few flashbacks to his old life would be welcome. Personally, I’d like to imagine his previous existence as being something akin to the events of The Lonely Island’s nightmarish vision of corporate hell, ‘Like A Boss’…
Baxendale’s Lorna might yet blossom but is less immediately engaging than the others, while TV newcomer Tamla Kari does a lot with the relatively little she’s been given so far as sweet, besotted Rachel. Drew-Honey’s the one to watch – his bitter teenage cynicism and thorough disdain for anything connected with his sister, Cuckoo very much included, works extremely well. Samberg’s easy chemistry with his British co-stars was one of the pleasures of this first half-hour, although it’s tempting to wonder how he might spark off the zanier end of the British comedy spectrum. I’d give a lot to see him alongside The Mighty Boosh, for example (and speaking of the Boosh, does anyone else foresee Cuckoo’s spellbound, mantra-like enunciation of ‘jack-et po-ta-toes’ becoming as unforgettable as Matt Berry’s version of ‘Kit-KAT’, or is it just me?) The script’s a little underpowered at the moment, but if the series delivers on the opening episode’s promise, Samberg’s first foray across the Atlantic could well be one of 2012’s highlights.
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