Being Outnumbered Is A Good Thing

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Twee, cloying family sitcoms have punctuated primetime since the invention of canned laughter. But the faintly dark, extremely funny Outnumbered is proof that a little genre rethinking can go a long way. And as the third series closes, there's not a hint of staleness. It's such a shame, though, that the show's junior stars have to grow up. Eventually, their aging will kill Outnumbered. Already, oldest son Jake has morphed into a generic, self-aware teenager and lost his appeal.

In case you haven't seen it, Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner play parents to a precocious trio. They're desperately middle class and live in an unrealistically large south London house where kiddie chaos reigns. So far, so smug, safe and obvious. Or so you'd think. In fact, Outnumbered is smart, using Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Simpsons as style guides rather than, say, My Family. Like Curb, there's a script but it's loose, leaving room for improvisation. Outnumbered's cunning creators discovered that the best way to naturalise child actors, and juice their naive comedy genius, is not to over-manage them. Who knew?

The youngest, Karen, is a Machiavellian whiz kid whose grasp on the law outstrips that of the average public prosecutor. She challenges her parents' logic on everything. A few episodes ago, she refused to help her mum clear up a mess because she wasn't the one who made it. Instead of whining her objection, like most seven-year-olds, she launched into what sounded like a Thatcherite monologue on social responsibility, explaining how society is doomed if we don't pick up after ourselves. If I were David Cameron, I'd put Karen in my cabinet. Or at least have her over for a play date with my kids.

Little Ben, meanwhile, has his sister's vocabulary, plus a fierce imagination and no inhibitions or ability to register his co-conversationalist's discomfort. He's Richmal Crompton's William Brown meets Larry David. While Karen scares her parents with her cold, hard reasoning, Ben embarrasses them. Luckily for Sue and Pete, they didn't witness his chat with a pregnant woman looking to buy their house. She's white and her husband is black, so Ben wonders--out loud--what colour the baby will be. Will it have black and white stripes, he asks. Or spots?

Karen and Ben are off the leash and their tired parents have virtually given up trying to tame them. Apathetically, they apologise to their kids' victims, again and again. It gets funnier every time. In this last episode, Karen ends up in hospital and needs a tetanus jab. The sweet, child-friendly nurse is easy pickings for a legalese-fluent Karen. When she's told the injection will hurt "a little bit and not for long", Karen demands to know who to speak to if this turns out not to be the case. Clever kid. You wouldn't want one like her, but my god she's good.

The third season of Outnumbered finishes on BBC One at 9.30pm on Thursday, May 20.

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