From Better Things and Married to Catastrophe and SMILF, the last few years have been boom times for the sardonic, semi-realistic sitcom keen to prove that parenting can be hard work. Also free of canned laughter, schmaltzy life lessons and lazy kids do the darndest things humor, FX’s Breeders – which returns for its second season tonight – appeared to fly under the radar in comparison. Yet its portrayal of modern family life may well be the most relatable of the lot.
On the surface, the London-based comedy relies on a far more traditional picture-perfect set-up. The Worsleys are a white middle-class nuclear family living in an immaculately-furnished house ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. Father Paul (Martin Freeman) has the unconditional support of his slightly befuddled parents, while Ally (Daisy Haggard) has a cushy recording studio job that sends her on all-expenses-paid weekly trips to Berlin.
Its first season, however, had more than just first-world problems to deal with: Ally’s estranged dad (Michael McKean) returned to make amends only to get fatally hit by a car soon after. And at one point it looked like the show might do the unthinkable: kill off a kid. Luckily, son Luke (George Wakeman) recovered from the serious brain infection that gave its penultimate episode the most macabre of cliff-hangers. Still, throw in Paul’s blatant anger management issues and a relationship which both sides acknowledge has grown staler than last month’s bread and suddenly their family life doesn’t seem so rosy.
Little wonder, then, that Season 2 picks up where things left off, with Paul in therapy, albeit reluctantly. “Most of this stuff belongs in inverted commas,” he tells the first of three weary counsellors subjected to his default mode of unbridled cynicism. However, we’ve now flashed forward several years on. Both Luke (Alex Eastwood) and sister Ava (Eve Prenelle) have new faces — although their predecessors do pop up in newly-filmed flashbacks — with the former about to celebrate his 13th birthday and the latter at that pleading for a cellphone stage.
The first four episodes screened for review might not contain as much in the way of high drama. There is a brief appearance from the police but it’s only to settle a mix-up over some rose pruning. That doesn’t matter, though, when you have such lived-in characters and scripts which achieve the tough balance of believable everyday conversation and pithy one-liners.
Alongside Armando Iannucci regulars Simon Blackwell and Chris Addison, Freeman created the series drawing upon his own experiences of parenthood. It shows in the frustrations, the worries and the general mundanities that his on-screen partnership struggle to contend with on a daily basis. And whereas most of its counterparts focus solely on the mother’s perspective, here the highs and the lows of raising kids are seen being shared equally.
Learning to let go is a particularly strong recurring theme this time around. See the unnecessary panic over ten-year-old Ava walking home from school unaccompanied for the first time. Or when her devout Atheist father has to wrestle with the fact she’s suddenly developed an interest in God. The Worsleys can no longer shape their kids’ minds and the show is at its funniest when they’re trying to navigate their way around this new development.
“We were never going to be The Waltons. But I’d settle for The Munsters. Even the Manson family had a shared interest,” Paul despairs after his household starts to outgrow their Sunday night ritual of watching a low-rent TV talent show. And while castigating a sullen Luke for answering back in that most teenage of ways (“Are we done yet?”), Ally delivers a hilarious foul-mouthed outburst that puts her husband’s to shame. Both Haggard and Freeman are superb at conveying genuine affection one minute and sheer exasperation the next, both toward their kids and each other. It’s rare to see a sitcom marriage so far into the comfortable phase depicted with such depth.
The perils of parenting may cause the pair to start dreaming about putting their kids up for adoption and emigrating to Portugal, a thought which will no doubt ring true for any viewer with sprogs of their own. But it’s also clear they’re determined not to make the same mistakes their own parents did.
Paul is adamant his father Jim (Alun Armstrong) will die from a burst stomach ulcer having spent 70-plus years suppressing every human feeling possible. Yet when Luke’s moodiness and insomnia is explained by a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder – something cleverly foreshadowed by his younger self’s constant fear of death – Paul is a tower of emotional strength. His touching tête-à-tête with the scared teen offers a warmth often missing from all the other “child-rearing is hell” comedies out there but without descending into saccharine Full House territory, too.
As is the cycle of life, though, it’s no longer just their little ones that the couple are having to parent. Paul’s folks feel like they’re now too ill-equipped to be their grandchildren’s guardians (“we’re not infirm but we’re not firm”) and he spends most of the third episode trying to console mother Jackie (Joanna Bacon) over the gentrification of their once-neighborly community. Even Ally’s cold-as-ice mom Leah (Stella Gonet) shows signs of vulnerability after being burgled at her own swanky home.
Mind you, the fourth episode’s final shot suggests that the Worsleys will soon undergo another major shift in family dynamics. It’s unlikely to be a straight-forward one, of course, but like everything else in this underrated gem, it will no doubt be unflinchingly accurate.
Jon O’Brien (@jonobrien81) is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from the North West of England. His work has appeared in the likes of Vulture, Esquire, Billboard, Paste, i-D and The Guardian.
Watch Breeders on FXNow