Outnumbered

Outnumbered debuts tonight on BBC America at 11 p.m. Eastern.

The sad truth about most family sitcoms is that they are tediously familiar without actually resembling real-life: the lighting is ersatz; the houses spacious, clean and stocked with shiny, new appliances; the moms hot and impossibly thin; the kids witty and precocious. Outnumbered, a semi-improvised, single-camera British comedy that finally premieres on American TV tonight, is the opposite: a sitcom that’s so authentic, it’s practically alien.

Set in an unnamed middle-class neighborhood in London, Outnumbered begins on the first day of school at the Brockman household.  Peter and Sue are the frazzled parents of three bright but unruly children. Jake, 11, is the family worrywart, prone to making ill-timed allusions to Ebola and global warming—that is, when he’s not listening to his iPod or absorbed in an IM session. Ben, 8, is the middle child, whose pathological lying—he tells his teacher that is father has died in Iraq—has his parents worried.  Then there’s little Karen, 5, whose probing curiosity and fertile, slightly morbid imagination frequently leave her parents speechless. (Karen explains one of her drawings to her mother: “It’s a cow. A cow killing people because it doesn’t want to be made into food.”)

Peter, played by British comedy veteran Hugh Dennis, is a history teacher at the local public school, a place so violent that, as Sue puts it, “they’d have Mike Tyson for breakfast.” When it comes to his pupils, Peter has long since crossed the line from frustration to resentment. “I regret that I ever thought that teenagers might prefer history to ring tones,” he says. But Peter’s flippant attitude is starting to get him into trouble, particularly after he makes an off-color joke about one student, a chubby Turkish boy.

Meanwhile, Sue works part-time as a personal assistant to a demanding boss named Veronica, who calls incessantly no matter the day of the week. Sue is tightly wound and seething with resentment, especially toward her flaky sister, Angela, who finally returns to London after years abroad in order to help take care of their ailing father. Sue is played by Claire Skinner, the puckishly pretty actress who was so memorable as the butchy, sane sister in Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet. Like that wonderful film, Outnumbered is a subtle, achingly funny look at middle-class British family life, with a narrative so slight as to be almost (but not quite) non-existent.

As its title suggests, there’s a sense of weary resignation—and maybe just a touch of misanthropy—to Outnumbered. Sue and Peter are always on the brink of being overwhelmed—by their children, by their bosses, by the clutter in their chaotic house. The show’s distinctly English brand of melancholy feels like a rebuke of the determined perkiness of so many American sitcoms; Sue and Peter don’t always love being parents, but they’re never quite as sarcastic as their American counterparts. When Sue discovers that Karen’s come down with a case of lice, she sends her daughter off to school rather than deal with the headache. In another scene, Ben asks his father how he can be sure they aren’t characters in someone else’s dreams. “I can't imagine anyone having a dream this dull,” he replies.

Outnumbered will inevitably invite comparisons to Modern Family, though it actually premiered 2 years earlier, in 2007 (how it’s taken 4 whole years for Outnumbered to make it to our shores, and why BBC America is dumping it on Saturday nights at 11, I don’t know). The two shows certainly do have a lot in common: a scrappy, uptight blonde mom; a dad who tries too hard to be buddies with kids and in the process loses their respect; a vaguely creepy son with a mop of curly brown hair; oodles of politically incorrect jokes.  But whereas Modern Family is slapstick and a tad sentimental (and I say that as a huge fan of the show), Outnumbered is emphatically understated. The sweetness is more subtle, and so is the humor.

Outnumbered is also a serial comedy, meaning that Ben’s still lying in episode three, just as he was back in episode one. It’s a rare format for a domestic sitcom, where the “issues” that come up in the first act are nearly resolved in the third, but it lends additional credibility to the fictional world of the Brockman family. But easily the most remarkable aspect of Outnumbered are the performances of its child stars. They fidget and speak haltingly in the way that actual children do, rather than smoothly delivering the glib words of adult writers. In the premiere episode, Ben and Karen argue passionately over whether Ben’s “gun” (in actuality, a vacuum tube) could kill a fairy. (“Fairies are magical and they'll kill you before you kill them,” Karen reasons). It’s exhilarating to watch.  

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