In Monday’s Guide (liftout for the Sydney Morning Herald), Jim Schembri’s preview of award winning US family sitcom Modern Family began ‘Really, is there anything funnier on TV at the moment?’
‘Yes,’ we replied in my house, ‘resoundingly yes!’
Not that we don’t enjoy Modern Family, or appreciate the way it’s rejuvenated the US sitcom. But has Jim Schembri seen Outnumbered, which screens over in the corner on ABC 2 just after whatever deep-pocketed advertiser brings us Modern Family on Ten? Perhaps not, as the Guide doesn’t even give it a synopsis – just ‘8.00 Outnumbered. (PG)’
Outnumbered is an English show about a family consisting of two parents and their three young children, plus occasionally the husband’s mother. There’s no diversity of culture or sexual identity, It’s a straight up the middle of the road nuclear family. What makes it shine is that the three young actors – aged 7, 9 and 13 or thereabouts – aren’t working form a memorised script. They’re told what’s going to happen in a scene and then let loose in front of the camera. The adult actors, who are working from a script, then have to deal with whatever lollybombs are thrown their way. And the young are brilliant improvisers, especially the two younger children, playing the characters Ben and Karen. (The older boy is more on his dignity, so doesn’t have quite the same scope.)
You probably need to see it, but favourite moments include an argument between Ben and Karen about who would win in a battle between a fairy and a boy armed with an increasingly alarming arsenal; a bizarre riff on what might be concealed in a big black beard, or Karen’s chat with her mother while she is having nits combed out of her hair: ‘Can I keep a nit as a pet?’ ‘No. Why would you want that?’ ‘I’d talk to it.’ ‘But nits can’t talk.’ ‘Yes they can. They talk nit language.’ ‘Well, you can’t have a nit for a pet.’ ‘Then can I have a giraffe?’ ‘A giraffe is too big.’ ‘What about a lion then?’ ‘Lions are too dangerous.’ ‘Could I have a nit town in my hair?’ and so on.
My single favourite exchange occurred after Karen had wrought havoc by authoritarian rulings at her father’s doubles tennis game after an unwary player suggested she might be the umpire as a way of keeping her entertained. Chatting with her mother that evening she says she wishes girls could grow beards because then they could be ferryboat captains. The mother says she can be one of those without a beard. ‘An ayatollah then,’ says Karen. ‘You’d make a good ayatollah,’ says the mother wearily. Score one for the adult team, or just possibly for the writers. In Modern Family it’s always the writers.