'Breeders': TV Review

Has the potential for greatness once it gets through its growing pains.
3/2/2020

Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard star as the unmarried parents of two young children in FX's latest comedy.

Like salmon migrating upstream, or spring breakers alighting on Florida, parenting sitcoms arrive like a force of nature, steady, relentless and unasked for. Many of these shows are startlingly alike, centered on white, urban and conspicuously affluent heterosexuals with professionally groomed, personality-free offspring. Rarely do they make discussions about widely relevant issues, like school choice, corporal punishment or lying to children, feel relatable. In recent years, the genre has helped unvarnish parenting, especially motherhood, but seldom does a series break through like, say, Amazon's late, great Catastrophe.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's rom-com turned midlife dramedy certainly seems to be the model for TV's latest parenting sitcom, FX's Breeders. Created by Chris Addison, Simon Blackwell and star Martin Freeman, the show finds British thirtysomethings Paul (Freeman) and Ally (Daisy Haggard) caught between their two small, screaming children and their aging, glibly self-absorbed parents.

Freeman and Haggard share a lived-in chemistry rooted in subtle comic one-upmanship and their characters' shared need to tell the other the latest absurdity that befell them that day. The couple's day-to-day lives are filled with time-consuming trivialities, but death and disease seem discomfitingly close. You can practically feel the Grim Reaper's sour breath on your face.

Breeders is undeniably aiming for an uncomfortable tone, one where the series-defining line "I would die for those kids... [but] I also want to kill them" makes a certain kind of emotional sense. (What if The Babadook but male… and a black comedy… about a jerk?) The show begins with Paul shrouded in a cold, blue light, telling himself not to yell at his shrieking 7-year-old, Luke (George Wakeman), and toddler, Ava (Jayda Eyles), in the next room. "Jesus fucking Christ!" he cries as he bursts through the door. "You think I'm going to put up with this? I'll fucking go — I don't give a shit!" Paul quickly turns apologetic, but Ally's on his side: "It's a conundrum, isn't it? Trying to work out which duvet to suffocate them with."

The series' most novel conceit is that Paul's fatherhood has revealed to him layers of anger that he didn't realize he had. He used to think of himself as a nice person, Paul tells his own father, but parenthood has taught him otherwise. It's a fascinating bit of self-reflection and humility, and Freeman adds several intriguing poison-tipped barbs to his gentle screen image.

But Breeders is also a sitcom, so instead of exploring how Paul's explosive rage has affected his girlfriend or children (at least in the first half of the 10-episode debut season), the show gives us jarring hijinks about doctors, neighbors and the police suspecting Paul of abuse. Ha ha? In another episode, a broken family is just the cost of Paul and Ally's petty, shrugging fun.

Breeders proceeds at a breakneck pace, between Paul and Ally's banter, flashbacks to their past and the never-ending drudgery of parenthood. So it's something of a relief whenever the series slows down, as it does when Ally's drifter father (Michael McKean) floats into their home, in one scene telling the children with calming reassurance that there's no point in doing homework. The death of a family pet, among other events, leads to an offbeat but earnest meditation on grief (and the bizarre forms it can take), making it clear that the writers are much more adept at exploring darkness with candor and a splash of whimsy than introducing hollow edge to the parenting sitcom.

That chapter offers an auspicious dramatic turn to this derivative, rarely laugh-out-loud funny yet wholly promising comedy. There's always someone else who can tell the children to Go the F**K to Sleep.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Daisy Haggard, George Wakeman, Jayda Eyles
Creators: Chris Addison, Simon Blackwell, Martin Freeman
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)