The Britcom Outnumbered makes its Stateside debut on BBC America Sunday, and even though Fox has tried to make American adaptations twice — once in 2008 and again in 2010 — a U.S. version has never made it past the pilot stage. It’s not too hard to see why: The show is about two slightly weary parents and their three kids, but it’s an incredibly loose and naturalistic take on family life. There’s none of the precociousness of Modern Family, or the zaniness of The Middle; instead, the show Outnumbered most closely resembles is Louie, especially in the way it portrays its youngest characters.
Outnumbered’s nowhere near as inventive or purposeful as Louie (is anything?), but it has that same jangly rhythm and ear for kidspeak; in both cases, the dialogue veers from them adorably saying the darndest things to them being, well, annoying and unreasonable, which is normal kid behavior. The children on both shows struggle to say their words exactly right, and the parents struggle with the same thing. What do you say when your sons asks you if a machine gun could kill a fairy? When you want to convince your daughters to be polite to an old relative with something more compelling than “because I said so”? Is it bad to think your 12-year-old son might be depressed? Or that your angelic little girl might be too spoiled?
Reality television has altered our perception of what “real” looks like onscreen, so now we’re conditioned to expect a level of phoniness. We rarely see 5- or 6-year-old characters in anything — they’re too old to just sit there, but too young to carry a whole episode. In those capacities, Louie and Outnumbered toy with our expectations and earn comedic capital not just from the children saying genuinely funny lines (“I like mama’s house better … I love her more”), but also from not presenting them in a hammy or sitcom-y way. Modern Family might be a kinda-sorta mockumentary, but it still relies on sitcom pacing: set the kid up to say a strange or accidentally hurtful thing, let the audience cringe in anticipation, have him say it, and then pause to get the reaction from the other characters. Not so on these shows, where each moment flows into the next, where the weird statements come sandwiched into a tooth-brushing ritual or are just folded into a car-ride conversation.
Family-set comedies are nothing new, certainly: They’ve been a staple since TV began, and we’ve seen all kinds of kid archetypes: The ditz. The tomboy. The troublemaker, the cute youngest one, the dumb jock, the one with the wisecracks, and the aw-shucks one who learns lessons each week. (The Brady Bunch had all of those.) Roseanne gave us a sibling set that actually seemed to be related to the parents; The Simpsons gave us the iconic overlooked middle child. The Cosby Show had bright young characters and A+ parenting, and Married With Children had mostly the opposite. All recognizable types, sure, but few real kids fit that neatly into categories, and even fewer still (except maybe for Baby Neil Simon) are naturally good at zingers or applause lines. Outnumbered and Louie aren’t reinventing the wheel so much as rolling it over some new terrain. But each show does it with such commitment, with so much invested in the inner world of these children, that it’s impossible not to be taken along for the ride.