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18 October 2023

Where are all the family dramas?

Breeders isn’t perfect – but it is a rare example of a mainstream show that doesn’t centre around a dead body.

By Rachel Cooke

Children grow up pretty fast, and never more so than on television. When Sky’s parenting comedy-drama Breeders began in 2020, the kids were small, and bad sleepers. Now they’re late-rising teenagers, and the older of the two, Luke (Oscar Kennedy, the third actor to play the character), is about to move in with his girlfriend. “When does parenting end?” asks his dad, Paul (Martin Freeman), on hearing the unwelcome news that, at 18, Luke is to become a father himself. I knew how Paul’s wife and Luke’s mother, Ally (Daisy Haggard), was going to reply before she opened her mouth. Picture a crematorium, a pair of horrible little velvet curtains closing as a large wooden box disappears behind them. That’s when it ends, people.

Yes, Breeders is still depressing! Or maybe it’s only me who finds it so. I can see how emotionally true it all is: the intimate family rivalries; the quotidian relentlessness; Paul’s anger management issues. Freeman and Haggard make for a convincing couple, their scenes together brimful of the tetchy warmth that rises from a long, strong(ish) relationship, like steam from a cooling bath. If Paul’s parents, Jim (Alun Armstrong) and Jackie (Joanna Bacon), set my teeth on edge – Lord, the kvetching – at least we also get Stella Gonet as Ally’s grand and vaguely bohemian mother, Leah. I plan, quite soon, to be just like her.

But still, something about the series, the creation of Freeman, Chris Addison (who also directs) and Simon Blackwell (who writes), makes me feel low. Three episodes into the fourth and final series, I began to wonder if it wasn’t the Worsleys’ house that’s the problem. Its slightly annoying open staircases and wide, gun-metal London views are straight out of the Modern House, the estate agent beloved of everyone who fantasises about living in the Barbican. However, like so many of those kinds of buildings, it also has what I might call – if I believed in such nonsense – bad feng shui. When they’re all cooped inside it, a headache threatens, literally as well as metaphorically.

[See also: BBC’s Boiling Point knows the terror of the kitchen]

But you’re here for a review, not notes on scatter cushions. When the series begins, it’s Christmas. Ally and Paul are getting on better, their discussions about splitting up quite soonish having unexpectedly lightened the marital load. There’s also the situation with Luke. The shared conviction that their boy might be about to ruin his life has brought them together, even if it does run somewhat counter to their burgeoning competitiveness in the matter of grandparenting.

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On the other hand, Ally is also about to turn 50 – cue much OTT existential angst – and Jim and Jackie have moved into sheltered housing – cue opportunities for defibrillator jokes. Jackie is the kind of pensioner next to whom you definitely don’t want to be stuck on a rail replacement bus service. Her little speech about how honey makes her shudder because it “comes out of bees’ bottoms” made me feel vaguely murderous.

As grudging as I sound, I do like Breeders more now than I did in 2020, when it felt rather chilly and mechanical. It has grown richer and calmer; its tone has settled. I find myself wondering what a fifth series might have been like: one in which Ally and Paul, time having slipped again, have become empty-nesters (and, perhaps, orphans). It’s amazing to me how relatively little mainstream family drama is being produced right now. Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax and Abi Morgan’s The Split are long gone; Jacqui Honess-Martin’s propulsive Maternal was axed after one series.

Commissioning editors seem more and more to be only green-lighting stories with dead bodies in them. The massed ranks of middle-class, middle-aged viewers who not only tend their elderly parents, semi-grown-up children and demanding jobs, but sing in choirs and dig allotments and still go to quite cool gigs are, it seems, fated to watch true crime to the end of their days – and for light relief, well, there’s always Bake Off. How weird to be in the business of popular culture, and yet so determinedly oblivious to simple demographics.

Sky TV, 20 October, 10pm; now available on catch-up

[See also: ITV’s The Long Shadow trivialises the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts