The Pentaverate could have been good, but that would have required restraint and revision, neither of which are on display in a show that is simultaneously overindulgent and toothless. The trailer might make you think, “Sure, this will be bad, but I’ve enjoyed bad things before.” Yet this Netflix comedy was mostly far misses and a few near successes, with none of it swinging hard enough in any direction to earn your respect. It’s a show about a secret society for good and its ending message is “people should trust experts, but experts have to serve the people,” an extremely basic idea presented in a very basic manner. The Pentaverate is not a show that ever considers why people don’t trust institutions, despite taking place in a world where the Illuminati are real. While I don’t think that’s necessarily the responsibility of a Mike Myers comedy show, he took it on and failed. It reminds me of Don’t Look Up because it’s one of those obvious messages being aimed at the wrong people, and it’s not that funny.
The plot centers on a five-person secret society supported by an army of aides, engineers, and a parody of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard known as the Lichtenstein Guard (unlike the Papal issue, they don’t use MP5s, just halberts). The Pentaverate, as Jeremy Irons reminds us in the voiceover intro that changes each episode, is distinct among history’s secret societies for being “nice.” The plot is motivated by the fact that one of them is killed, replaced for the first two episodes by nuclear physicist Hobart Clark (Keegan-Michael Key), who dies and is thusly replaced by billionaire Skip Cho (Ken Jeong). Mike Myers plays the rest of The Pentaverate (including a fictionalization of his real-life friend Shep Gordon), as well as protagonist Ken Scarborough, a Canadian journalist who starts investigating conspiracy theories because he’s being pushed out of his local TV station gig by the remorseful Mrs. Snee (Tanya Moodle) for Darleen Windelchuck (Samantha Spiro). Reilly Clayton (Lydia West) is the co-protagonist that accompanies him through most of his adventure, while Debi Mazar plays the executive assistant to The Pentaverate who ends up being something of a hero.
In addition to the main cast, Jennifer Saunders appears in a bunch of makeup as a pair of fraternal twins, the Maester and Saester of Dubrovnik. The scene with the Saester went long enough to delight me, and it comes not long off the heels of the Shrek cameo. Yes, there’s a Shrek cameo. Because Mike Myers is known for three things, and none of them are two minutes in Inglourious Basterds. (We’re all better off forgetting The Love Guru exists.)
After a seemingly endless cavalcade of puns and dick jokes, the villain’s scheme is revealed in the last two episodes: using the Pentaverate’s sentient supercomputer to fabricate truth and selling its exclusive license to the highest bidder. Because this show is not actually intended to challenge anyone’s thinking, this means selling it to either China, Russia, or an unnamed country in the Middle East in a familiar display of casual liberal Western chauvinism. I don’t know how anyone that’s lived through the past two years could still hold on to the idea that the West’s leadership are all benevolent actors. At least Don’t Look Up was conscious of that.
When it’s said that something “didn’t age well,” it doesn’t always mean it’s offensive because it attacks a marginalized group. Sometimes it just stopped being funny because it stopped being daring, not just in challenging sensibilities but in becoming rote and tired, losing its unique creative spark. Sometimes jokes get passed up, sometimes humor expires. The comedic sensibility of society at large advances and some things get left behind. I’m sincerely sorry to say that Mike Myers’s schtick is one of those things.
Myers makes a lot of jokes at the expense of Canadians, as if to give him cover to say offensive things about other groups, but the humor here isn’t particularly edgy. The fact that the Russian member of the Pentaverate is a very thinly veiled reference to Rasputin isn’t great, but this show’s problems really aren’t in representation, they’re in execution. It’s not a worthwhile exercise to pick through and see if anything was upsetting under a veneer of humor because it’s not that humorous. I was caught off guard by the times I did laugh hard enough to pause and rewind or even remember because of how seldom they came. Just goes to show that if you want something so-bad-it’s-good, you need something trying to be earnest; the unwitting camp, the melodrama that turns into self-satire by mistake. You can get laughs out of those, or at least see some bold ideas. The comedy that fails at being comedic is merely dull.
The Pentaverate is a failed experiment at rehashing old tools with little in the way of new jokes. It’s Mike Myers using a comedic style that was cutting edge in the ‘80s and on-point in the ‘90s to try to make a point or several about misinformation and conspiracy theories. Returning to the prosthetics and puns that helped make Austin Powers a classic was an inherent risk, but it might have been worth it with better writing. The high-end Netflix production values feel wasted, and what little of value this show has to say about information and propaganda was done much better in The Guardians of Justice (Will Save You). Watch that instead.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.