Star-studded war comedy C*A*U*G*H*T takes a shotgun approach to satire

War is hell. But it can also be chaotic, star-studded, and hilarious, as is the case with TVNZ’s new comedy C*A*U*G*H*T. Travis Johnson walks us through this wild Australian series: “suffice to say, C*A*U*G*H*T is A Lot.”

You know how it goes. One minute you’re deep in enemy territory on an off-the-books black op, the next you’re masterminding a social media campaign to save your own neck—and hopefully your cute-as-a-button moppet back home.

Meanwhile, a disgraced A-lister is trying to leverage your situation to save his own rep, a fervent citizen journalist is digging into the whole affair, and a loose unit mercenary with a dingo fetish has you in his crosshairs.

Honestly, we blame Bryan Brown. Worst PM ever. Should have stuck to bartending.

Welcome to the weird world of C*A*U*G*H*T, a new satirical miniseries from veteran Australian actor Kick Gurry (Jupiter Ascending, Barons), here making his writing and directing debut. He’s also playing the role of Dylan Fox, one of four Australian soldiers who find themselves up to their armpits in trouble when they’re captured by a rebel militia in the fictional South-East Asian nation of Behati-Prinsloo.

Faced with execution at the hands of insurgent leader Director Bustard (Fayysal Bazzi), the four hatch a wild plan: make a “fake” hostage video to explain the plight of Behati-Prinsloo to the world—and save their own necks. But neither Dylan—himself a wannabe actor—nor his compatriots, amiable meathead Albhanis (Lincoln Younes), surprisingly sensitive Phil (Alexander England), and doting dad Rowdy (Ben O’Toole), expect to become both a viral sensation and the focus of a massive international incident.

Together with rebel fighters Shammi (Mel Jarnson) and Mamolo (Dorian Nkono), they struggle to keep the illusion going long enough to either escape or get rescued, and if their newfound internet fame helps the crowdfunding campaign for Rowdy’s dangerously ill daughter gets over the finish line, so much the better. Of course, a shallow grave in a jungle clearing is not out of the question…

Suffice to say, C*A*U*G*H*T is A Lot. It’s freewheeling, madcap comic adventure that splits the difference between sharp satire and ribald “Aussies abroad” comedy—if you can imagine a cross between obvious influence M*A*S*H and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, you’re on the right track. Taking such serious themes as terrorism and torture for comedy fodder is tricky business, but as Gurry notes, “I grew up watching M*A*S*H with my parents, which was the show, for me, that broke the mould of the serious deconstruction of war.”

As it happens, Gurry’s no stranger to military-themed black comedy, having cropped up in Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers alongside Joaquin Phoenix and David Michôd’s War Machine with Brad Pitt back in the day. He’s managed to collar another big name co-star for this one, too, with famous (some might say infamous) Hollywood progressive Sean Penn playing himself, mercilessly taking the piss out of his image.

After a disastrous appearance on The Today Show, Penn (the fictional Penn, to be absolutely clear) decides that sticking his oar into the fraught Behati-Prinsloo situation might be just the thing to repair his tattered reputation—and let’s face it, if anyone is in a prime position to lampoon performative celebrity activism, it’s him. He’s also on board as executive producer, which indicates he’s clearly in on the joke.

Penn’s joined by his Dead Man Walking co-star Susan Sarandon as the US Secretary of State (they’re both much funnier here), trading barbs with Bryan Brown’s larrikin PM as they try to finesse the growing crisis, while fellow American import Matthew Fox crops up as a gung-ho special forces operative. The rest of the cast aren’t slouching, with Rebecca Breeds as crusading journo Josie Justice who, like Penn, sees an opportunity for career resuscitation; Bella Heathcote as her sister and source, a military attaché happy to leak info about the growing crisis; and Travis Fimmel as The Dingo, a fur-clad mercenary fixer tasked with cleaning up this whole mess—with lethal force if necessary.

The whole thing is a real labour of love from Gurry, who shared a house with Younes, England, and O’Toole when they were jobbing actors on the Los Angeles audition circuit and wrote the series with his old mates firmly in mind. He wanted to create a comedy that commented on the chaotic nature of our current weird moment in time, reflecting, “I think many of us wonder what the hell’s going on at the moment—where we belong, which side we’re on. This show is a bonkers deconstruction of this moment, which can ignite conversation around it.”

To that end, C*A*U*G*H*T takes a shotgun approach to satire, cheerfully blasting away at internet culture, the Australian/American “special relationship”, self-serving progressives, military adventurism, celebrity culture, the intersection of politics and entertainment, and more. The joke-per-minute rate is kept impressively high and few sacred cows are left unmolested, but the cheekily irreverent tone takes the sting out if it. Do make time for this one—you wouldn’t want to be C*A*U*G*H*T out.