It is with a relief akin to the kids’ first day back at school that weary parents welcome the return of Motherland. Finally, some adult company! True, there is no shortage of parenting sitcoms on TV, but there are relatively few that so ruthlessly dispense with sentiment in favour of stressed-out social satire. It’s oddly soothing.
There’s also no shortage of Sharon Horgan on TV, and though the prolific writer/producer/performer is only a quarter of the creative team here (Holly Walsh, Helen Linehan and Barunka O’Shaughnessy round out the writer’s room), Motherland is unmistakably Horgan-esque in its depiction of comic self-absorption. If you thought Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) stooped low to “lean in” last series, wait till you see the lengths she goes to as a working-from-home freelancer.
Julia’s harried manner – rush to school drop-off, rush to the cafe, rush to the office, rush back for pickup – sets each episodes’ frantic pace and, judging by her appearance, series-two Julia seems to have finally had the nervous breakdown that series-one Julia was forever threatening. Actually, it kind of suits her. Combined with the right amount of “sod the patriarchy” swagger, dirty joggers, purple furry coat and unbrushed hair can be a certified look. Don’t expect everyone to get it, though. “You all right?” asks Liz (Diane Morgan) as Julia slumps down at their usual cafe table. “You look like a mental patient.”
Ah, Liz. For all that Motherland innovates in the field of onscreen mum representation, Liz hails from that older sitcom tradition of take-no-crap heroes, stretching back to Roseanne via Lois from Malcolm in the Middle and the gone-too-soon Della in Raised By Wolves. Liz’s one-liners should be compiled into a how-to manual and handed out to all new parents. Wisdom such as: “Life’s too short to dick about with aubergines” and: “You wait till he gets on Tinder; see how much of a co-parent he is then” cannot be allowed to pass us by in a flurry of farce.
Yet it’s Julia, not Liz, who gets the most screen time and is presumably intended as the most relatable. In the American high-school cafeteria that is the mums’ favourite local cafe, Julia is huddled at a too-small, toilet-adjacent table with her fellow misfits, while Amanda (Lucy Punch) heads up the Mean Girls in a superior spot. Into that finely balanced hierarchy, series two introduces a new character, Meg (played by Tanya Moodie), a high-flying business exec with five kids who still finds time to party hearty (“That one has a fridge full of Yops and Red Bulls,” observes Liz sagely. “It’s a classic 90s comedown concoction.”)
Meg is the manifestation of Julia’s “having it all” anxiety and therefore less a fully rounded character, more an awestruck Forbes magazine profile. Hopefully, we will get to know Meg better in the already-commissioned third series, just as this series has gifted soggy stay-at-home dad Kevin (Paul Ready) with a believable backbone. For now, though, her introduction could read like a panicked attempt to pre-empt criticism – the Motherland version of Donald Glover’s season-two Girls cameo. And to what end? This is still a sitcom by white middle-class mums, about white middle-class mums.
Let other sitcoms skewer other postcodes. Motherland doesn’t realistically reflect the diversity of a typical London state primary, but it does do a terrific job at satirising one specific stratum of school-gate society. It’s a world in which allegiances are fast-shifting. The misfit mums’ camaraderie often tips far enough towards smug to make you side with their enemies, and Julia’s gobsmacking selfishness and capacity to exploit others can make Amanda’s villainy seem redundant. All of which is true to the general fallibility of humans who happen to have children, not to mention hilarious.
It’s common sense, really, the observation that stress doesn’t typically transform people into selfless saints. But the show’s insight goes deeper and darker still. Are these people all really friends? Or are they, as Kevin worries, “just friendly”? Are the other mothers just life rafts Julia will cling to until she reaches the safe shore of her youngest child’s 18th birthday, when they will be hastily discarded?
Motherland probably won’t still be on air then, but it could be. From Kevin’s Brexit picture book to the yummy-mummification of the high street and dick pic etiquette for single parents, there’s an abundance of storylines here, enough to fill 20 series. High school has given us great television as varied as The Inbetweeners and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; why should this equally intense life stage be any less of an inspiration?