A comedy called Breeders (12 March, 10pm) about the dark sides of parenting should have come as a direct mailshot to me, stubborn refusenik that I am in the matter of human reproduction. (As I always tell those who put me on the spot about this: I like children, but I’m not sure I could eat a whole one.) I love Motherland, the oestrogen-fuelled BBC series on a similar theme, and Sky’s publicity campaign for Breeders made it sound like that show on crack cocaine. Bring it on, I thought, settling down to watch. Let there be boiling rage, late-night existential crises, and apple-cheeked sprogs who are not quite as endearing as they should be.
But, oh dear, this is not for me. It may be that I’m getting a bit soft in my old age, but I think its tone is all wrong (the script is by Simon Blackwell, who also brought us Back and the recent film of David Copperfield, and whose stuff I usually adore). Paul, the father played by Martin Freeman, whose idea this series was, is just too angry, too unrelenting. Yes, he’s a stretched (but not single) parent to two small children, and God knows his son, the older of the pair, is whiny and anxious (the kid, an insomniac, is obsessed with fires and burglars). Even so, this doesn’t fully account for his anhedonia. He’s basically a bit of a git, and it’s this, I think, that draws all the oxygen from the series. Sometimes, the black cloud that permanently trails him is the only thing you can see.
We’ve grown used, in recent years, to comedies that aren’t always funny, or which come cloaked in melancholy – and I’m fine with those. No one knows better than me what a hoot a funeral can be, nor how savage a loving family. But that’s not what’s going on here. Paul’s life, like that of his wife, Ally (Daisy Haggard), might sometimes be boring and hard work, but it’s also replete: nice house, nice job, nice family. He’s lucky. His expletive-strewn rants strike the viewer as disproportionate because they are disproportionate: whatever it is that’s wrong here has mostly to do with his head, his malcontented personality.
How are we supposed to feel about him? Is he nice or nasty? He tells his father (Alun Armstrong) he’s a bad person, a statement we’re inclined to ignore at first. This is cuddly Martin Freeman, after all, and maybe he could just get some anti-depressants? But after a while, I began to wonder if he wasn’t right. He’s mean, as well as moody, shouting at his ageing parents; exploding at a teacher when he suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea that his son is being held back by less able children.
High on some perverse breed of envy, and encouraged by a complicit Ally, he then does something even worse, composing an email to a parent he particularly loathes in which he informs him that his wife is having an affair. Admittedly, it gets sent by accident. But still, that he wrote it at all… Where a neighbour’s extramarital sex would have moved the Motherland crew only to mirth and smutty curiosity, he and Ally come over all weirdly sententious – and when their poison pen letter does its work, and the couple in question separate, there’s no fallout (or not so far). They barely blink at the havoc they’ve caused.
I’m not someone who thinks one has to like, or even to sympathise with, fictional characters. When I’m queen of the world, the word “relatable” will be banned. All the same, I can’t work out who Breeders is for. I can’t think that most parents will warm to it, however little sleep they’ve had (I do wonder just how knackered you need to be to laugh at a gag about suffocating a small boy with a duvet – though I guess it’s all in the delivery). But on the other hand, it doesn’t make the non-parent want to cheer either, or not this non-parent anyway.
If Motherland sends up the selfish and solipsistic cult of a certain brand of 21st- century parenthood, Breeders seems somehow to be trying to make excuses for it. Yes, parents can be awful, it tells us – but it’s only because they’re very tired.
This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down