Everyone Else Burns is one of those sitcoms where it’s your ordinary, average, nuclear family with 2.5 children with a twist – in this case that they’re part of a doomsday cult. It’s up a few gears from other variations on this formula, like that they’re divorcees or astronauts, but to its credit never gets bogged down in heavy-handed commentary about its subject matter. It’s content to simply let its cultists be silly.
The cult itself is an esoteric flavour of Christianity, but it’s very clear that this choice is for familiarity’s sake, rather than painting a target on one faith in particular. Median British audiences – and by extension Anglosphere ones – are familiar with the story of David and Goliath in a way they aren’t with Vishnu assuming his final form and becoming death, destroyer of worlds.
And to be clear, this is to the show’s credit. Only the most out-there of Christians would interpret it as having a go at them, and it’s consciously aiming towards accessible, crowd-pleasing stuff. Lowest-common-denominator maybe, but lowest form of wit? Not in a world where YouTube Poops exist.
The thing with Everyone Else Burns is that you can see the seams of construction a bit too clearly. The rest of the family’s broad, Britcommy antics exist in a clearly separate zone to the daughter’s fumbling teen relationship story, which is clearly of a later kind of television show – it’s not too hard to imagine it filmed in a different aspect ratio.
But if there’s a reason you can see the joins, it’s down to the show being made of such familiar parts. Simon Bird’s paterfamilias in particular is an age-old British comic archetype, the not-so-lovable loser, proud and prickly because of his deep-seated insecurities, and socially inept with it. From Fawlty Towers to The Brittas Empire to the evergreen Alan Partridge, this type’s drive is to seek status and climb the greasy pole, despite having only so much of an idea of how that’s done.
This is a shift for Bird, who before now has been a bit trapped in the role of permanent adolescent thanks to his star-making part in The Inbetweeners. He was put-upon and spiky there, too, but with this evolution to adult has come an obliviousness to his own failings. Again, this is of that distinct British comedy type, like how Mr. Bean never quite got why anyone wouldn’t behave the way he does. Everything but Bird’s search for status – in this case within the church – falls by the wayside.
Kate O’Flynn’s mother character is hampered by gestures at a more serious sub-plot like her daughter’s, even though she clearly lives in light entertainment territory. She, like the rest of that side of the show, is generally at her best when she’s at her broadest – arch and blunt and quietly despairing of her horrible life. When this despair gets louder, the narrative is very hesitant to engage with what that really means.
Meanwhile, the daughter’s teen drama for sheltered youths is trying its best, but never rises to funny in quite the same way. At least it’s self-aware enough to have its leads talking about rom-com cliches, but this can’t make it great. It is too much of a servant to sentiment, having to flail about with a constant string of one-liners and, sigh, banter rather than any real laugh-out-loud moments.
This is distressed because Everyone Else Burns is demonstrably capable of pulling off the rare trick of not letting its big sentimental bits kill the comedy stone dead. Far too many shows have to shift gear with a lurch when they’re po-facedly explaining what we’ve all learned today. Everyone Else Burns, whatever its flaws, can make squaring that circle look easy.
As for the son, I give him up and return him to sender. His borderline-changeling shtick started out promising, but was always all too visibly the kind of thing you can’t get too much mileage out of. He’s less a character and more one routine that gets stale quickly, and you’ll probably be able to spot the moment at which the writers ran out of material for him.
Outside of the main cast, you’d expect the big power-player to be the head of the cult’s local branch – who is suitably stern and authoritarian when he has to be, but too often relegated to reacting to the wacky hijinks of everyone else. Instead the best of the b-players has to be Lolly Adefope’s dysfunctional teacher, who’s managed to capture a bit of the same inscrutable comedie energie as Derry Girls’ wonderfully fed-up Sister Michael.
Adefope, and the inexplicably camp deputy priest, stand out from the pack by dint of actually having some substance of their own – not even that much, but at least enough to carry a scene themselves. This is in contrast to the other also-appearings, who have a nasty tendency to get too familiar too quickly in a way that seems not at all natural, but does get us moving swiftly along to the next plot point.
In fact, Everyone Else Burns frequently gets itself into corners where it has to really bend the rules to make things work. This eventually culminates in some of its absolute biggest emotional beats relying on a major plot hole, and a volte-face that’s clearly angling for a cheer but is simply too far a turn to be believed. At that point you’re being openly asked to tamp down all your little niggling doubts and just go with it, exactly like the poor cultists you’ve been following for the past three hours.
This is not something comedy as a genre is a stranger to. Austin Powers summed it up in the immortal “I suggest you don’t worry about this sort of thing and just enjoy yourself…that goes for you all, too”. To be sure, if you go picking apart any work of fiction you’ll eventually find something to quibble, but here, even without it making you feel a lot like a member of the cult yourself, it stretches suspension of disbelief to the point it actually snaps.
Like many light family-based sitcoms before it, Everyone Else Burns is one you can simply switch your brain off and enjoy. But here, that comes with the dark edge of a live-action demonstration of why you should never ever do that.
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