Mrs Brown's Boys: In defence of one of the most divisive shows on TV
Mrs Brown's Boys returns for two seasonal specials this Christmas
“Haven't we all suffered enough?”
That was one Twitter user's take when they found out Mrs Brown’s Boys was back for two more specials this Christmas.
Another added: “Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse.”
“Mrs Brown's Boys is the worst thing ever put on TV,” went another, and a fourth summed up what a lot of people think: “I have not come across a single person who does not think Mrs Brown's Boys is the biggest load of rubbish ever.”
Critics widely agree that the show sucks. The Independent once called the sitcom “the worst comedy ever made”. And after sitting through an episode, a writer for The Observer said “the immersive experience is actually, shockingly, worse than expected.”
They continued to describe the show as “sentimental to retching-point, homophobic, itch-lousy with single entendres, somehow managing to be both twee and vulgar, achingly unfunny…”
And yet confusingly, the sitcom about matriarch Mrs Brown, played by show creator Brendan O’Carroll in drag, and the experiences of her family in Ireland, is a ratings hit.
Last Christmas, some 3.8 million viewers tuned into Mrs Brown on Christmas Day (making it the 7th most-viewed programme), and 4.9 million watched in 2019. But those figures pale by comparison to just a few years back. In 2017, 6.8 million viewers watched it, making it the most-watched programme on TV on Christmas Day.
A recent Halloween Special attracted 2.6 million viewers, but by contrast, BBC soap EastEnders scraped just 1.7 million viewers for one episode this year, marking its lowest-ever viewing figures.
So, clearly, people are still watching Mrs Brown's Boys, but why?
“People just like to moan!” believes JJ Lucia-Wright, a Mrs Brown’s Boys fan from Peterborough with a strong message for the detractors: “If you don't like it then don’t watch it."
The 46-year-old spends his free time watching sitcoms from the '70s and '80s, so it makes sense that he has love for Mrs Brown, which has an aesthetic that hails from this period.
Many of the show's fans agree that Mrs Brown's Boys' secret weapon is that it's relatable.
Another fan, Peter Smyth, from Scotland, told JOE: “While lots think it’s unfunny, for many of us it's that bond of family that we love. Mrs Brown is the glue that bonds them all together. Her jokes remind me of the jokes my own Mammy used to tell.”
The 50-year-old, who says he "loves everything from Doctor Who to The West Wing but has a hatred of anything with Simon Cowell," adds: “The humour is a bit close to the bone - but so is the humour in my family.”
Mrs Brown's Boys is filmed in front of a live audience, and even TV viewers get something of a 'live' experience: on occasion, muck-ups from the shoot are left in the final edit for extra laughs.
Fart gags and sexual innuendos are common, but fans say that underneath that bravado, Mrs Brown sends a deeper message about love and union. “I think the hatred of it is a class thing,” believes Peter, who adds that he reckons “a bit of anti-Irish sentiment” also contributes to the criticism the show receives.
“Agnes and her family are just like any working-class family who had to struggle to survive with a father who was a dick and a mother who would give everything up for them,” he argues.
Interestingly, Peter’s belief mirrors YouGov survey findings, which revealed in 2018 that 52 per cent of Mrs Brown’s Boys fans were from working-class backgrounds. On the flip side, 67 per cent of people who didn’t like the show were from middle-class backgrounds.
While the show is clearly crass, Peter argues Mrs Brown's Boys has actually pushed the agenda and is progressive. “I think those who don’t like it think it’s unsophisticated, but they forget Brendan O'Carroll used Agnes to campaign for marriage equality."
But if it’s so relatable, how come so many people aren’t… relating to it? Slapstick humour is massively out of fashion, say some fans, including Darren, who believes most millennial and Gen Z audiences simply don’t get the comedy. “I watch it on my own because I’m yet to meet another person who likes it!” says the Londoner, who declined to give his surname.
Some of Darren's other favourite comedies include American sitcom Parks & Recreation, and British holidaymaker comedy Benidorm.
“I don’t think people of my generation really enjoy slapstick comedy, unless they were specifically exposed to it growing up, which I was,” he says. “You don’t get many sitcoms nowadays that still have slapstick."
The show's entire look is dated, from the patterned wallpaper to the fussy ornaments, and fans believe this too could be a sticking point.
“Yeah, it looks old-fashioned but it looks like real homes across the country,” argues Peter. “Agnes is a woman of the 1950s who brought her kids up in the ‘70s and ‘80s so it’s of its time.”
JJ also feels sentimental about the nostalgic feel of the show. “For a lot of people it's very old school and predictable, but a lot of people like it purely for that reason,” he explains. “Brendon knows his stuff, old gags or not - they still get a laugh.”
While Mrs Brown's Boys isn't going to be everyone's go-to programme this Christmas, Peter believes critics should ease up on bagging it.
“My message to the haters is to be more Agnes. She hates no one.”
New episodes of Mrs Brown's Boys air on Christmas Day at 10.20pm on BBC One, and on New Year's Day, als0 at 10pm on BBC One