Last Night's Television: Outnumbered
BBC2, Beehive, E4
Thursday 04 December 2008
If you want to understand why Outnumbered is so good, the fade-to-blacks are important. This device – a little dip into nothingness between scenes – is hardly a new bit of television grammar and is not exactly unprecedented in comedy. But it's a crucial marker of species identity nonetheless. First of all, it hints at a kinship with documentary, the genus from which this distinctive feature was inherited, and where it can still regularly be seen, marking a self-consciously solemn reflectiveness. Second, it throws into particular relief what the comedy does not depend on, which is the rimshot punchline and the collective belly laugh. It isn't immediately obvious what we're meant to do in those little interludes of vacancy, but roar with laughter is definitely not one of them. They're a little space in which we can chuckle quietly and murmur the word "true" to ourselves.
It may be that if you don't have children, you can't entirely get how spot- on Outnumbered can be. You'll recognise that the children involved are startlingly natural and funny in their responses, of course, and that Ramona Marquez as five-year-old Karen effortlessly steals any scene in which she features. But, as unforced as this cuteness is, it could potentially be a problem, tipping the whole thing towards a television equivalent of one of those Kids Say the Funniest Things columns. What rebalances the comedy are the details that frame those moments, and they are details that you could easily miss if you hadn't already lived them. Woken at 6.25 on Sunday morning, Claire Skinner's character groaned out a question that must have crossed many parental minds: "How come they actually wake up earlier on the weekend?" And the episode that followed will have stirred recognition in every parent who has ever issued an edict in haste and then repented it at leisure.
Declaring that television and computers are out and it is to be a day of quality family activities, the adults found themselves locked in a purgatory of board games, hide-and-seek and command-performance recorder recitals, at which it was the audience being commanded and not the performer. And though this contained several cute laughs, including the child who trumped everyone with "Velociraptor" during a game of paper-scissors-rock, it was the truthful sense of parental weariness that held it all together, the little dip into blackness that flickered across a father's face when it was suggested that he got the bikes out for a trip to the park. It's so beautifully low-key and unpushy that they only just get away with the occasional more conventional gagline: "I don't think I've ever felt this knackered at the end of a Sunday," said the father shortly after they'd turned the television back on, "except maybe when the pedalo got caught in that riptide off Guernsey." Then again, that's such a good image for the frantic, apparently progressless battle of parenthood, that they do.
If you want to understand the comedy in Beehive, E4's new all-female sketch show, it helps to have a sense of recent television history. One of the sketches here is a virtual remake – shall we say homage, to be polite? – of a classic French and Saunders sketch in which a young child tries to explain the facts of life (a synthetic adult notion of what it would be funny for a child to say, which contrasts markedly with Outnumbered). Elsewhere, you can see the influence of Blackadder II's Queeny (in a sketch in which Queen Elizabeth I tries to pretend to her courtiers that she's not a virgin at all), The Fast Show's orange make-up lady (in a returning routine about two passive-aggressive South African air hostesses) and Smack the Pony pretty much everywhere (but particularly in the little video vignettes that interrupt the bigger set pieces).
Memories of Smack the Pony are going to give them the most trouble, because the team here are just not quite as assured about underplaying the comedy (and some of the studio shoots look a little bargain basement). But when they follow their own lines, they can be funny and unexpected. There's a nicely pointless fantasy in which they appear as the Russells Brand, all styled and talking like the celebrated Sachs offender. And there was something pleasingly enigmatic about the sketch in which one of the girls claimed to be able to replicate a famous scene from Alien, jabbing between her outspread fingers with a carving knife at dazzling speed while staring impassively in front of her. When she did eventually look down, she discovered she'd cut off all her fingers, an expensive bit of prosthetic work that they rather milked in the reaction shots. But it was the deadpan response of her friend that really made it funny. "I'm sorry... but... is this still part of the film?" she asked quizzically, looking at a shambles of fingertips and blood.
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