Television Review

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The best moment in Grown Ups (BBC2), a new comedy of thirty-something life, lasted just eight seconds and the brevity was indispensible to the joke. The episode took place over a week, each day being preceded by a title card. Wednesday consisted of just two lines; a couple are watching television when suddenly the woman sits bolt upright. "Look, look" she exclaims, jabbing her finger at the set, "we used to have a kettle like that!" "Oh yeah!" replies the man, with unfeigned interest in his voice. Cut to the title-card for Thursday.

This won a laugh for several reasons. For one thing it was mildly surprising and oblique, a joke that played with expectations of sitcom form. For another it seemed to me quite sharp about the radically diminished excitements of the domestic life, in which kettle-recognition might plausibly be the most memorable incident of a given day. And Grown Ups is precisely about the universal dilemma of such narrowing horizons (if it hasn't happened to you yet, enjoy yourself while you still have time).

The programme begins with a title sequence in which a childish stick drawing of five figures morphs into the principal characters of the comedy and they all look mildly bemused as they swell into full definition, a nice allusion to the way that adulthood comes to most of us in the form of an ambush. But the kettle joke also exemplifies the goal for any successful comedy, a galvanizing moment of recognition, and here Grown Ups is far better in theory than it is in practice. While the subject matter is refreshing (most existing couples-comedy is about much older people), while the form offers a break from the standard three-piece-suite farce (there are brief excursions into fantasy and pastiche) and while there is a nice inconsequentiality to some of the dialogue, Grown Ups doesn't quite deliver on its promises.

Part of the problem is the vexing addiction of British sit-com to gormlessness. This isn't actually incurable - one of the reasons that The Vicar of Dibley works, despite its self-consciously vintage construction, is that Dawn French's character is allowed to be knowing and witty - she tempers the general idiocy so that it never gets too cloying. At first it looks as if Bob, the balding sociology lecturer, might be permitted a similar dignity here. When an errant friend begins to fret incoherently about the thwarting of his artistic ambitions Bob interrupts with sardonic acuity; "Jim, skip the intro. Who're you sleeping with?" But later on we're expected to believe that the same man gets into a froth of ungovernable suspicion because his wife has gone to visit the friend in his studio: "He's a photographer, you know what they're like," he mutters, with a cuckold's panic. Well we know what they're like in duff comedies, it's true, and we know, with tedious exactitude, how jealous husbands behave in the same genre, but we had been hoping for something different, something less dependent on a cast of half-wits. At such moments you suspect that Mel and Bob probably stayed with Terry and June over the Christmas holidays. It seems unlikely that many people will sit up suddenly and say "Look, look, we once had a row just like that".

The other problem is a certain thinness of comic texture, a fact which may have as much to do with manpower as invention (Grown Ups has a single credited writer, Paul Makin). It was less than wise, in this respect, to make fun of American television (even though the sequence contained a good parody of Friends style gestural acting). When Mel, for example, notes that happily married couples are "an endangered species - we'll end up a safari park", the image is simply allowed to peter out. As a feed line this is passable (it has been said before, after all) but when, after a nicely-timed comic pause, it returns in paraphrased form as its own punchline, it just makes you think wistfully of the ruthless craftsmanship of the best American comedy.