The funniest thing about The Pentaverate is the timing of its arrival for Netflix, given how under the kosh they currently are in terms of value for money.
Recent reports have seen Netflix’s stock value plummet following news that they have lost a considerable subscriber base as the ‘streaming wars’ heat up with a consolidated Disney and Amazon, a critically rising Apple, and a looming WarnerMedia on the horizon. All media analysis points to one conclusion – Netflix might still be top dog but they can no longer rest on their laurels. Content is not simply enough any longer. Their strategy of throwing as much as they can at the streaming wall and seeing what sticks is not generating them dozens of Stranger Things’ or Bridgerton’s. What they’re ending with up too often is projects like The Pentaverate.
No one is likely to dispute that Mike Myers is funny or certainly has been funny. Wayne’s World has aged well and is now considered by many as a cult comedy classic of the early 90s. Austin Powers, while broader, albeit just as hit and miss, landed squarely inside the ‘Cool Britannia’ fondness for the 1960s that came to bear in the late 1990s, fondly lampooning the James Bond series and 60s cultural norms with great success. Myers is a one-trick pony in many ways but you know what you’ll get – cheeky charm, irreverent asides, teenage boy scatological set pieces and gurning, cod-Spitting Image caricature. You’ll either go in for that or you won’t and The Pentaverate is entirely more of the same.
The difference is that in the age of Netflix, of streaming, Myers’ repertoire of jokes is rapidly wearing thin.
You get the sense that much of The Pentaverate was sketched out, if not entirely written, by Myers around the point he was at the peak of his success: the 1990s.
Following Wayne’s World, he made So I Married an Axe Murderer, a fairly popular picture at the time in 1993 but which hasn’t had anywhere near the same cultural traction. It’s therefore remarkable that The Pentaverate is, technically, a spin-off from said film; given at one stage, a character looking at the Weekly World News and its assortment of bizarre, ghoulish stories discusses the conspiracy theory of a secret society with a twist: they’re nice. Has it really taken Myers three decades to bring this to life? Or have studios and executives repeatedly said no until Netflix? Given the series very much feels like a movie script broken up and fleshed out to accommodate six fairly short serialised stories.
When I did So I Married an Axe Murderer, it was on everybody’s mind. Many years later, it starts to be on people’s minds. So I said to Netflix, ‘What if five people did run the world? What if they were nice and what I got to play all five of them?’ And they said, ‘Yes!’ I wanted to talk about [it] in a silly way, but meaningful way — this idea of expertise and elitism and I think we want to have experts in the world. We want them to serve the people and we want the people to trust the experts.
This underlines the sentiment behind Myers’ work on the series which, despite The Pentaverate being a rather calamitous misfire, speaks to a noble intent.
Myers plays eight characters on the series, ranging from super rich, ancient old British lords to squat-faced, ranting Texan conspiracy theorists, in a show with an admittedly fun comedic premise – what if the Illuminati, the secret rulers of the world, were actually motivated by good intentions? Conspiracy theorists for decades, perhaps longer, have fuelled a belief in a singular, one-world shadowy force who control what to buy, who to vote for, and so on. The X-Files was built on such foundations. Jon Ronson has made entire documentary series and written books on the subject. And Myers has long been interested in the idea of a nefarious secret cabal controlling world events – just look at Dr. Evil and his S.P.E.C.T.R.E style plans in the Austin Powers series.
The Pentaverate allows him to play in that sandbox but he inverts the idea by having the secret cabal, who have existed since the Black Death in the 14th century, not be the villains. The bad guys here are the cynical exploiters of public opinion. The aforementioned Alex Jones-style conspiracy mouthpiece Rex Smith (played by Myers). The Rupert Murdoch, super media baron facsimile Bruce Baldwin (also played by Myers). It is them corrupting America, and they who the Pentaverate themselves are corrupted by. Myers message is one of kindness and it comes from his own external place as a Canadian; his main character here is Ken Scarborough, an out of his time broadcasting relic.
Imagine Austin Powers crossed with a cuddly roving reporter and that’s Ken. He becomes the avatar of Canadian goodwill crossing the border into American polarised vitriol.
So the conceptual idea behind The Pentaverate is interesting and quite fresh.
Myers does land a few laughs – chiefly with Jeremy Irons having fun as a grand voice behind the credit sequence who becomes more egotistical and embittered with each episode; there’s also a great gag about not skipping the intro that is really on point. Beyond that, however, we’re in sub-Powers territory. Scatalogical gags everywhere, juvenile asides, jokes that would have been dated in 2012 let alone 2022 (there’s is a Kill Bill gag that is easily about 15 years too old). Just a sense overall that Myers should have made this whole endeavour at least twenty years ago, if not earlier. He is able in the present climate to better sell the idea of expert opinion and kindness trumping (pardon the pun) ignorance, but his conspiratorial arena isn’t as incisive as it could be in an era of QAnon.
That said, it is really hard at points to dislike. Myers is clearly having a whale of a time and his charisma remains in evidence. Whether you find the jokes funny will be naturally subjective, but it’s hard not to at least smile when Myers is on screen – even when he’s playing cliched characters (such as the Rasputin-style Russian member who keeps pronouncing words so they sound rude). He’s also keenly lampooning standards and practices in the streaming era with a few cutaways to a Netflix executive who apologises for moments—such as an intentionally cheeky nude sequence that goes further than similar ones in Austin Powers did—that threaten to go beyond the pale. That’s all good. That’s Myers engaging in satirical humour for our modern age and entering territory not everyone would go.
Ultimately, it’s just a shame that The Pentaverate feels like a relic, no matter the good intentions or the game cast involved—though while Lydia West is engaging as Ken’s Canadian sidekick, Jennifer Saunders turns in perhaps a career low screeching comedic turn—it all just feels old hat. It proves that Netflix are quite willing to green light anything that, in truth, most studios or more discerning platforms wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Myers has creative license here to display how, much like his most famous spy hero creation, he’s kind of been frozen in ice since the 1990s (this is certainly his first project since the critically panned The Love Guru in 2008). He is a national treasure from a bygone age.
Had The Pentaverate been made in 1997, it still might not have been much good, but it would have perhaps made more sense. I’ll give it this, mind – it’s nice.
DIRECTOR: Tim Kirkby
WRITERS: Mike Myers, Roger Drew, Jasmine Pierce, Ed Dyson
CAST: Mike Myers, Mike Myers, Mike Myers, Lydia West, Jeremy Irons, Mike Myers, Mike Myers, Maria Menounos, Mike Myers, Debi Mazar, Jennifer Saunders, Ken Jeong, Mike Myers, Mike Myers