I have a friend who swore that having a child wasn’t going to change him. The kid would have to adapt to his schedule, he told me — not the other way ‘round. The kid wouldn’t keep my friend from being the fun guy who went to concerts and movies — he’d make sure of that. He was so certain about his strategy for impending fatherhood — not falling into the same morass that had snared so many other new parents — that I really believed him. Turns out I was as naïve as he was. It’s years later now, and he’s as overwhelmed as anybody else with young kids. It’s not his fault — he’s a good dad — but, really, more of an indictment of how insanely difficult being a parent is. You’re lucky to get through it alive.
That doesn’t mean I’m remotely interested in watching TV shows about it, however. The new FX series Breeders is a funny and engaging program about the trials and tribulations of Paul and Ally, a longtime London couple with two kids under the age of eight. But after five episodes, I’m not sure I have much more patience for the show’s overriding theme, which is that, boy howdy, being a parent sure is hard. It’s not that I disagree with that thesis. It’s just that I think everyone knows it already — even viewers like me who don’t have children and don’t plan on having them. Raising kids is a difficult undertaking for which I’m in utter awe. But don’t expect me to give your show about it a medal just for pointing that out.
Premiering tonight with two episodes, Breeders introduces its tart tone from the start. It’s the middle of the night and Paul (co-creator Martin Freeman) is trying to get his son Luke and daughter Ava to go back to bed — a task that’s proving difficult since Luke is a worrier and has recently fixated on the idea that they could die in a fire. But Paul is no stereotypically warm, paternal figure full of kindly wisdom: Quite the contrary, he’s a foul-mouthed, short-tempered 45-year-old who’s quickly becoming aware that he’s way too old to be dealing with young kids.
His partner Ally (Daisy Haggard) is more level-headed — in a sense, she doesn’t just mother their children but her overbearing boss as well — but she, too, is a deeply flawed, petty person. They love their kids, but they also want to murder them. They love each other, but they have a tough time remembering why amidst the exhaustion and occasional emergency room trips. Yup, ain’t that just like life?
Breeders’ supposed blunt honesty about modern-day parenting — far removed from the prehistoric wholesomeness of Father Knows Best — is meant to be provocative, liberating, the truth. “In nice sort of lefty, liberal circles, you don’t really talk about how you want to throw your kids out of the [expletive] window,” Freeman (who has two kids) recently told The New York Times, later adding, “if you’re constantly, constantly, constantly being disobeyed, someone’s going to threaten to put someone through a wall. And that’s real life.”
“No shit,” I thought when I read that quote, and a similar reaction stirred throughout most of Breeders. Like a standup comic expressing an obvious, uncontroversial opinion on stage in hopes of getting a positive response, this single-camera comedy keeps hammering on the notion that the wider world just doesn’t get the shocking reality of parenting, which is that it often makes people miserable monsters.
My problem with that conceit is that just about everyone does get that. You don’t even have to be a parent to understand this — not that long ago, FX had another series about the same thing, Married, and other networks’ shows such as Amazon’s acclaimed Catastrophe have mined similar terrain. (The blunt, unemotional titles of these similar programs suggest their shared mindset: Raising children is akin to a tragedy or a prison sentence.) Even in my very limited experience as a godparent and uncle, I witness the challenges firsthand, chief of which is that the demands are endless and exhausting. What sane person thinks parenthood is nonstop blissful joy? Exactly who will be scandalized by Breeders’ supposed candor?
Precisely no one, which is probably the point. Breeders’ faux-subversive tone very much feels like it’s preaching to the choir — specifically, the demographic of viewers who can’t get out to the movies because of their children and instead have to content themselves with programs like this at home. (In other words, people like my friend.)
The show’s most interesting idea is that Paul, who is played by Freeman with buttoned-down exasperation, is a nice guy who learns that his pleasant demeanor is a facade that’s collapsing. Most of us were first acquainted with Freeman as Tim from the original Office — a passive fellow too timid to pursue the coworker he loved — and that unthreatening onscreen persona continued in films like the Hobbit trilogy. But in Breeders, Paul swears up a storm in front of his kids, rarely apologizing for his outbursts. Not only is Paul drowning, he’s coming to grips with the fact that, deep down, maybe he’s actually a bad person.
Our society has held onto a belief that parenthood is a wondrous gift that reveals things about ourselves — presumably, positive traits we didn’t know we possessed. But Paul now realizes that such assumptions are bullshit. “I’m not nice,” he confesses early on. “For 30-odd years I was convinced I was nice. But I’m not — I’m nasty.” Breeders’ first five episodes consist of constant flashbacks to earlier in Paul and Ally’s relationship, showing us who they used to be before the throes of Parental Armageddon, and the Paul we see there has a cheerier disposition. It’s easy to be a nice guy when you’re not being challenged. (And just to throw this in: Paul and Ally are actually pretty comfortable financially with no health issues or other major worries. Imagine how much harder that would be in terms of raising kids.)
The parents I know spend a fair amount of time lamenting that they’re terrible parents, unable to do enough for their kids or failing to measure up to their own parents. (They’re actually underestimating their abilities, but that’s the way it seems to work — they’re under such pressure to be perfect all the time, which is an impossible standard.) They’ve had to let go of certain parts of their identity to devote themselves to their children’s needs. They’re self-conscious about how other people’s kids are doing in comparison to their own — they’re competitive and frazzled and angry and so very goddamn tired. I don’t judge any of that — parenting is incredibly hard, and anyone who does even a remotely good job at it is heroic. I know I couldn’t, which is why I didn’t choose that path.
So why don’t I have more sympathy for a show like Breeders? Freeman is such an effortlessly likable presence that Paul can be both caustic and hilarious, and there’s pathos to the character’s struggle to make the best of his life. (And Haggard is a delight as his foil, constantly annoyed by the tiny little gender inequalities that make her role as a parent drastically different than his, even though they’re both driven professionals.) But even with the amusingly exasperating Michael McKean on board as Ally’s estranged father, a ne’er-do-well who’s both blessing and curse when he comes to crash on their couch, Breeders keeps expressing familiar sentiments, expecting credit for discovering what all of us already know about the perils of parenthood.
As an insight into a well-documented phenomenon, it’s pretty wanting. But as indisputable proof that those of us who opted to be childless made the right call, I suppose the show does have some value.