Breeders episodes 1 and 2: No Sleep and No Places
There are two types of parental confession: those slyly designed to draw attention to an otherwise spotless family lifestyle (‘I shouldn’t say this, but I actually let them have a McDonald’s last month. Sooooo bad’), and the real ones (‘I would happily boot my baby off Tower Bridge for an hour’s sleep’).
The real ones aren’t a cause for concern because very few if any babies actually get booted off Tower Bridge. It’s just parents letting off steam, because parenting, like nothing else, fills you with steam.
Of late, TV comedy has been bolder about airing the real confessions. A new strand of sitcom no longer depicts childcare as a zany obstacle course, but as the drawn-out existential crisis it really is. Anxiety, frustration, guilt, doubt, selfishness, resentment, competitiveness, more anxiety, more guilt (so much guilt). Catastrophe, Motherhood, There She Goes and now Breeders: less a genre than a mass unburdening of shame. This is TV that squeezes you on the shoulder to say you’re not alone. We’re all monsters sometimes.
More properly, it’s TV that squeezes middle class mums and dads with well-appointed London homes in Travelcard Zones 1 to 3 on the shoulder to say they’re not alone. Perhaps illustrative of a kind of ingrained class snobbery that only finds benign neglect and rage-spitting fathers funny if they occur against the backdrop of some Orla Kiely wallpaper, the comedies listed above depict only one slice of the population.
The genesis of these shows might explain that too. Largely autobiographically inspired, they’re the product of media professionals swapping personal horror stories. Breeders was created by The Thick Of It and Veep writer Simon Blackwell, and The Thick Of It and Veep director Chris Addison, based on an idea by co-lead Martin Freeman. They’ve crafted acerbic half-hours out of bedtime ‘routines’ that resemble military skirmishes, school-gates one-upmumship and parents’ evening humiliations.
Freeman plays Paul, husband to Ally (Daisy Haggard). The leads are solidly cast, both comically and dramatically, and make Paul and Ally’s relationship feel fully formed, even in these early stages. These two are clearly a unit (“We’re best, aren’t we?” “We are best.”); both sardonic, both struggling with this stage of family life and both devoted to their kids – Luke, seven and Ava, four. They’re the kind of family you might see wiping up a spill in Costa, only funnier.
The balance of frustration between the two is particularly gratifying. Ally avoids all the worst clichés of sitcom mumdom– she’s no arms-crossed scold simultaneously raising her man and her kids. Putting them light-years ahead of some mainstream British sitcom, he’s not a man-child and she’s not a shrew. Her laughing “don’t be daft” response to a colleague asking whether she and Paul are happy gives way to a blessedly frank monologue. (“Who is happy with two kids under seven? I mean properly happy like you are when you’re in Portugal and you’ve just had a couple of beers and a big tomato?”)
We see Ally and Paul in a pre-kids holiday flashback, basking in responsibility-free coupledom, probably after a couple of beers and a big tomato. The timeline leaps back and forward, shedding light on or ironically clashing with what we’ve just seen. Keeping kids safe is “what mums are dads are for,” Paul explains to seven-year-old Luke in a funny, fast-moving scene where he attempts to negotiate childhood anxiety with the grace of a goose falling down a flight of stairs. Cut to: Ally in the hospital with a new-born Luke and her own mum (Stella Gonet) utterly oblivious to that fact.
The shortcomings of the previous generation’s way of doing things, as exposed by our therapy-enriched age, are also examined. So is the recent shift to child-focused parenting (as opposed to the ‘Panda Pop and packet of Walker’s Squares outside the pub’-focused parenting of the 1970s and 80s.)
It’s all laid on a foundation of modern anxiety over parental performance. The right school? The right role models? The right level of future economic participation? Add to that the weight of responsibility for ageing parents and it’s no wonder these characters are daydreaming about the days of the big tomato.
Daydreaming, and self-hating. The level of swear-rage Paul reaches with his children in the opening minutes of episode one may be the comic punchline to his calming mantra (“Breathe. Talk to them. Do it better, Paul. Be better…”), but it also breaks an uncomfortable taboo. As does the skilfully plotted end of episode one, in which Ally suspects Paul of having made good on his intermittent urge to murder their children. (He hasn’t.)
It’s a frank, funny and dangerously honest look at modern parenting, a real confession given a clever comedy polish, and part of a welcome growing trend. Still though, bet they wouldn’t change it for the world.
Breeders continues next Thursday at 10pm on Sky One in the UK. It’s currently airing on FX and Hulu in the US.