Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Motherland:No job for a lady?

It's hard to put your finger on exactly why BBC2's recent sitcom Motherland wasn't better than it was. The subject matter (focusing primarily on the mums, much less so the dads, and hardly on the kids at all) was long overdue and ripe for comedic potential. The writers, all four of 'em, had pedigree. Sharon Horgan created Pulling, Graham Linehan is hugely acclaimed for Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and Black Books, and Holly Walsh has written for Mock the Week and Never Mind the Buzzcocks which is, admittedly, less impressive. Less is known of Linehan's wife, Helen, but presumably she was brought on board to offer further female/maternal perspective. The cast too was uniformly good.

But over one pilot and six episodes the average LOL per half-hour was somewhere between two and three. That's not terrible but when you're dealing with the comedy of cringe, which Motherland was, you need to make sure the comedy outweighs the cringe, which Motherland didn't always manage.

The show revolves around a group of mums (and one stay-at-home dad, the ever eager to please Kevin played by Paul Ready) living in a reasonably affluent part of West London, their meet ups in Tea Bags coffee house, their parenting dilemmas, and the intricate complicated network of one-upmanship played out between them that seems to dominate almost every social occasion.
Anna Maxwell Martin's Julia is the selfish, stressed out star of the piece and most of the sits in this sitcom come from her agreeing to do something she doesn't really want to do (hosting a party, looking after other people's kids, organising a fundraiser, and, by the end you suspect, actually being a mother) in order to impress other mums or curry favour at work.
Her own mum Marion (Ellie Haddington) has clearly had enough of being taken for granted and blackmailed into looking after her grandchildren (to the extent that she hides behind her sofa when her daughter calls round) and her husband Paul seems pretty useless (a running gag is that Paul is always busy - busy drinking beer before an Arsenal match, busy choosing a croissant, busy necking Pimm's on a stag night, or busy go-karting) so Julia's in the process of interviewing a series of woefully unsuitable nannies.

These interviews are amongst the show's funniest. Though a lot of the laughs go to Diane Morgan as Liz, an anarchic single mother unbound by the unwritten conventions most of her fellow mothers adhere to. As the brilliant Philomena Cunk there's a lot of goodwill in the bank for Morgan and, though Liz could never compete with the genius of Cunk, she doesn't squander it.
Liz's singledom and disregard for the rules don't endear her to the other mums but her calamitous attempts at motherhood and housekeeping probably make her the character most viewers are likely to side with. Witness her cut the end of her finger off trying to knife open a frozen block of cheese, make a human centipede of caterpillar cakes, and eat a fifteen year old packet of onion ring crisps. Her suggestion for how to run a children's party, give them undiluted squash and put Gangnam Style on repeat, is priceless.

Julia and Liz form something of a triumvirate with drippy Kevin. Kevin's an unfortunate example of male domesticity as almost everything he does seems to have been coated thickly with the brush of soppiness and then given a topcoat of unfortunateness. His well meaning thumbs up for breastfeeding, asking the kids at a party if they'd like 'a peep on the carrot flute', and his obviously failing relationship with his wife are all mined relentlessly.
The other mums are, for the most part, more lightly sketched. Except for alpha mum Amanda (Lucy Punch) and the 'emotional storm drain' that is Anne (Philippa Dunne), a neurotic Irishwoman whose home is plastered with motivational slogans but still gets drunk on Cava and accidentally exposes her left boob at a kid's pool party.
Amanda is the self-appointed boss of the mums and something of a bully to boot. She's totally self-obsessed yet completely without self-awareness and she's never short of a humblebrag. If men don't actually fancy her she certainly wouldn't make the mistake of realising that. Of course her perfect house, her perfect husband, and her perfect kids are just a veneer and one that, towards the end of the series, is stripped away quite masterfully.

Many of the jokes are similar to the ones that mums you know will regularly make on Facebook and, for the most part, they're no more or less funny. How soon in the day is it acceptable to have that first glass of wine? Check. Road rage on the school run? Check. A spectacularly crap Minion cake? Check. A child puking up as if in The Exorcist? Check.
None of these are likely to have you in stitches though all are well observed. They elicit a smile rather than a laugh in most cases but there's one or two occasions when the joke falls completely flat. Julia's slapstick fall into the pool at the pool party is distinctly unfunny and seems to belong more in some crap like Miranda than here.
Much better are the hilarious parents evening, Julia's hapless elderly in-laws, the racist Animal Man whose rubbish animal show consists entirely of cats, and Anne's memories of her father-in-law who used to enjoy two to three bottles of Cava per day. 
There's some great lines too. Julia to her mother - "I've been busy looking after your grandchildren" - and in answer to the request "you must give me the recipe for that omelette", again from Julia, Amanda's deadpan response "eggs".

It's an eminently watchable show, it's well-observed, every single person in it puts in a great performance (so much so that to single any actor out would be a disservice to the others in what has to be considered a great ensemble piece), and the balance between plot development, comedic situations, and one liners has been struck just right. But, alas, it just isn't quite as funny as it should be. Whatever it is that some mothers do 'ave it would appear it's sadly not all the best jokes.
It's not a case that only a mother could love this sitcom but, alas, Motherland turned out to be a place that was pleasant enough for a day trip but unlikely to inspire repeat visits.

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