Parenting and specifically how the arrival of a newborn can disrupt and complicate a couple’s formerly carefree life is well-trodden ground in TV comedy. But while past examples of the genre have, understandably enough, targeted themselves squarely at the family, Breeders – based on an idea by its star Martin Freeman and co-created with The Thick of It’s Simon Blackwell and Chris Addison – is aiming for something different.
“It’s shining a harsher light on this kind of stuff than we’ve seen certainly in comedy before,” Blackwell said at a recent press screening of the new Sky One sitcom, while Addison put it more bluntly. “No-one in 2 Point 4 Children called anyone a ‘c**t’.”
Breeders, then, is sort of like Outnumbered filtered through Malcolm Tucker’s potty mouth – and it’s aimed not at the whole family but at the exhausted, frustrated parents at the head of it. Freeman’s character Paul sums up the eternal dilemma of the target audience in the show’s opening scene, telling wife Ally (Daisy Haggard), “I would die for those kids – but often, I also want to kill them.”
Breeders is unflinchingly honest when it comes to the realities of rearing kids – Paul and Ally aren’t perfect parents (because who is?), with the former in particular repeatedly losing his temper and cursing at his young son and daughter (though not at the young actors playing them, with a clean version of the script being filmed first, before the child stars were removed from set to allow the cursing to commence.)
It’s a trait that could make our two leads come off as unlikeable, along with the jealousy and disdain they direct at other parents. (“We’re best, aren’t we?” Paul asks Ally early in episode two, as they give their rivals the stink-eye on the school run. “We are best,” she affirms.)
But Breeders avoids this partly because its absolute honesty feels so endearing – let’s fact it, anything bad that Paul or Ally say or do is something we’ve either done ourselves or thought about doing – and partly because its two leads project warmth and charm even when they’re cussing out a pre-schooler.
Freeman in particular is called upon to behave rather badly, but as Blackwell points out, “because he’s bringing such a legacy of good will, from all the other things we know him from, there’s a warmth there, so he can get away with stuff that maybe another actor might not be able to get away with.”
Where the show does embrace well-worn sitcom tropes – both our leads have to contend with their own eccentric parents – it still does so with an air of authenticity. Blackwell has admitted to basing many of Paul’s interactions with his mother and father on his own experiences and this, along with hiring actors of the calibre of Alun Armstrong and Joanna Bacon, ensure that the interfering Jim and Jackie never tip over into caricature. More scene-stealing comes courtesy of Ally’s wayward dad Michael, played in a brilliantly offbeat bit of casting by Better Call Saul‘s Michael McKean.
Breeders can’t wholly escape a feeling of familiarity – its basic setup is still well-worn, with even the specific premise of a more truthful and profane portrayal of early parenthood having already being explored by later series of Channel 4’s Catastrophe. But if we’re going to revisit familiar territory, it might as well be on a show as funny, sharply observed and ably performed as this.
Breeders begins on Sky One and NOW TV at 10pm on Thursday 12th March