Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover—or a TV show by its title.
The new FX comedy starring Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard as the exhausted parents of two small children could have been called Parents or Mom and Dad or even Procreators. Instead it is called Breeders, settling on the most crass term to describe those who have children.
That title sets the caustic and depressing tone for the series, which focuses much more on the hardships and very little of the joy of being a parent. Paul (Freeman) and Ally (Haggard) have a four-year-old daughter, Ava (Jayda Eyles), and a seven-year-old son, Luke (George Wakeman). In an off-putting opening scene, Paul screams at his rowdy kids in a profanity-laced tirade. The couple then quickly moves on to discussing which duvet would work best if they suffocated their children. It’s as unsavory as it sounds. The scene epitomizes why the series can be so difficult to watch. Its premise is that certain things are universally relatable. While being exhausted and frustrated by your children is, fantasizing about smothering them to death with a duvet is not. The show, however, is on Paul and Ally’s side and that gets tougher as the episodes progress (the first five were made available for review).
The only people who truly know what it’s like to raise children from infancy are the ones who have done it. And you can tell that those behind the series, including showrunner Simon Blackwell, have all experienced the ups and downs of parenting with an intimacy that only those who have lived it know. The ability to read a beloved children’s classic without looking at the page (years later I can still recite for you “Is Your Mama a Llama?” without even thinking about it), the little mantras you say to yourself about how today you will be the day you don’t scream (personally I like to promise myself that today is the day I will be “a paragon of peace”), the fact that sometimes a car ride is the only thing that will make your children sleep, the way in which you and your partner so casually and far too often discuss poop—these are parenting truisms seamlessly woven into the series.
But Breeders is threading a tone that is extremely difficult. In real life, children are endangered every day by those expected to care and love them. To joke about that and not offend is tricky business, and Breeders isn’t up to the challenge. Instead of being funny or insightful, it is more often than not cringe-inducing. Another unsavory part of the series revolves around Ally’s colleague Darren (Patrick Baladi), whose devastation over not being able to have children of his own is continually mocked. Breeders certainly isn’t equipped to joke about the pain of infertility.
And yet, there are the occasional laughs. “I tried to tire them out but I think I just made them stronger,” Paul tells Ally after he has once again failed to get the kids to sleep. And maybe it’s not fair to set the bar so high for a show. After all, we willingly accept the fact that medical shows don’t really portray what goes on in a hospital and that legal dramas are far more exciting than the work real lawyers are often bogged down with. But TV so often gets parenting wrong. Typically there’s an extended joke about not getting any sleep after the baby is born. Or there’s the impish kid who is wise beyond their years. Children on TV are often the punchline. Now here’s a show that claims to truly get it, to want to portray your “real experience,” and maybe that’s at the root of what makes it so offensive.
The show makes a marked improvement when Michael McKean shows up as Ally’s estranged dad. He has no money or a place to live, but he loves his grandchildren and they love him. Watching Ally trying to reconcile who her dad is now with his actions in the past is one of the show’s strongest arcs.
But as for the kids, well, they’re mostly props or foils to move the story lines along. Whether it’s accident prone Luke falling down the stairs or announcing “I’ve got a thing I can’t say,” after his mother expressly tells him not to say something, or Ava needing to use the bathroom when they are at the mall, they exist mostly to give Daisy and Paul something to react to. Rose-colored flashbacks show their idyllic life before children—how great and carefree everything was! There’s no counterpoint to these flashbacks. Breeders is telling us that Paul and Ally’s lives were better before kids.
While Freeman and Haggard give strong performances, the show often plays out like a comedian who has gone too far in trying to figure out what’s funny without seeing what actually works. Comparisons to Amazon’s superior Catastrophe are also inevitable. That show, which also tracked two beleaguered parents doing the best they could, had an inherent sweetness to it; the love they had for their children was palpable. The same can’t be said for Breeders which can’t shake its nasty, cold undertones.
For all you parents out there, instead of watching Breeders, hire a babysitter and treat yourself to a night out.
Breeders premieres Monday, March 2nd on FX.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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