Hello there. Did you click this link by mistake? No? You’re reading a review of Mrs Brown’s Boys out of genuine curiosity? You’re hoping to discover what some liberal, metropolitan hack thinks of a show that has been roundly condemned as “utterly awful” by the entire journalistic establishment? Or perhaps you’re hoping to discover whether, after 13 years and 48 episodes, the show has taken a fresh pivot into foreign concepts such as “wit” and “coherence”? Well, whatever your reasons for reading, they can’t be any less explicable than the cultural permeation of Brendan O’Carroll’s sitcom, which is returning this New Year for the second part of its festive run.
Agnes Brown (O’Carroll himself) is an elderly Irish “mammy” facing the prospect of another year as matriarch of the sprawling Brown clan. Her best friend Winnie (Eilish O’Carroll) is being pursued by a mysterious stalker, her son Dermot (Paddy Houlihan) and best friend Buster (Danny O’Carroll) are promoting solar panel installation, and daughter-in-law Maria (Fiona O’Carroll) is running a weight loss competition. That’s roughly what’s going on in this New Year’s special (which stretches the word “special” to breaking point), though, as ever, much of the action transpires around Agnes’s kitchen table.
If one were forced – at gunpoint, perhaps – to, very quickly, write a novel featuring a fake sitcom, I suspect it would sound something like Mrs Brown’s Boys. A man in drag playing a potty-mouthed Irish grandmother: in a way, the best joke in Mrs Brown’s Boys is the sheer audacious laziness of the premise. And then there’s the comedy itself, which revolves predominantly around Agnes demeaning her companions (“Try and f***ing stop me,” she tells her son, when he asks her not to climb onto the roof) or being unexpectedly vulgar for a geriatric woman (“I could eat the testicles off a low-flying duck,” she proclaims, hungrily).
Charlie Chaplin once said that life is a tragedy in close-up but a comedy in long-shot. Well, Mrs Brown’s Boys is aesthetically (the cameras – which appear to be from the mid-1990s – hug O’Carroll Snr’s stocky frame) and comedically a close-up. All the same, observing that Mrs Brown’s Boys is unfunny is rather like observing that the sea is wet – the fact might be accepted, but it doesn’t tell you much about the prospect of diving in. And Mrs Brown’s Boys has always belied its critical drubbing, proving popular with audiences who revel in its subversively self-effacing qualities. The audience coos with mock awe when Dr Flynn (Derek Reddin) announces that he was privately educated. They laugh along when Winnie fluffs her lines (the show has always included mistakes, which is rather Dogme 95 of them) and cheer as the O’Carrolls line up, at the episode’s close, to take their bow. In short, it is a show for audiences, not critics.
All the same, and much as I admire an audience-centric approach to television production, Mrs Brown’s Boys cannot be encouraged. It exists as a form of spontaneous cultural effluence; a waste by-product of our obsession with quality. Comedy, as a genre, is still hit and miss, of course, but has become increasingly aspirational. The space for sitcoms (even lowest common denominator American crowd-pleasers, like The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The King of Queens) has been squeezed. Comedy writers want their shows to be good in the same way that dramas are, to provoke the same emotional reactions, to speak the same difficult truths. O’Carroll wants none of this. He accepts being the butt of the critical joke, in exchange for producing his idiosyncratically nepotistic form of anti-comedy (and, I suspect, bags of cash).
And so, I’m giving the Mrs Brown’s Boys new year special – “New Year, New Mammy” – zero stars, for two reasons. Firstly, because it is sufficiently bad that it offends the notion of star awarding. But secondly, and more importantly, because it exists in a liminal space outside of critical scrutiny or contemporary cultural mores. It is timeless and authorial and vapid and abominable. But you already knew that, didn’t you?