Last Night's Television: Outnumbered
BBC2, Beehive, E4

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam