'Motherland': TV Review

Better play dates to be had elsewhere.

Too forced and frantic, this Sundance Now series misses the comedy mother lode on parenting.

Writing a comedy about parenting is tricky and comes with built-in obstacles. People without kids might be less likely to watch or even relate to the jokes, and those who do have kids will know when something doesn't ring true. On the other hand, parenting is extremely stressful, particularly if the parents have jobs, and stress combined with the frustration of not being able to handle it tends to elicit laughter — as anyone knows who's ever watched any show about parenting.

That last part is pretty important. There have been a lot of TV series about families — about raising kids; pregnancy; single parents; working hard to survive; dealing with other parents and their stupid, dirty kids; competition among uber-moms and clueless dads; wishing one parent or the other had used birth control, etc.

It's fertile ground, but also well-trampled.

A lot of the issues that disrupt parenting comedies have crept into Motherland, the latest series from the talented, funny and prolific writer Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Divorce). Co-written with Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, the show comes from the BBC and gets its exclusive U.S. premiere May 10, on the Sundance Now streaming service. Its biggest issue is one that hurts plenty of comedies regardless of the premise: It's too forced.

Motherland wants everything about parenting to be heightened, frantic and awful, and picks a format that contrasts flustered working mom Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) with nonworking, everything-is-perfectly-easy queen-bee mom Amanda (Lucy Punch). Basically, Motherland is a high school clique comedy about parents, including Kevin (Paul Ready), the eager-to-please single dad, and Liz (Diane Morgan), the jaded, whatever-works mom, relegated to a less cool table in the cafe where they all gather every day. 

There are many reasons why you'd want to pull for Motherland, starting with Horgan, whose Amazon series Catastrophe is one of the best comedies on television — a show that perfectly mines how hard it is to be married and have kids without resorting to overly obvious scenarios. Secondly, Motherland has Punch (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ben and Kate, the musical feature Into the Woods), whose comic timing and withering glances have made her a standout in everything she does.

But even with several other mostly winning performances from fine actors, the cast can't overcome the constraints the show puts on them in service of ever-escalating scenarios meant to be wince-inducing and funny at the same time.

There's nary a character to like on this show. And while likability is not always a prerequisite for success, especially in a comedy, you only have to look at Catastrophe as the perfect example of why it matters. On that show, Horgan and her co-creator, co-writer and co-star, Rob Delaney, play a harried married couple with kids. As the characters frenetically navigate life, predicaments both funny and awful sometimes bring out the worst in them, but a strong likability factor allows them to get away with a lot.

In Motherland, it's Martin, as Julia, who is saddled with the toughest task. Apparently the audience is supposed to sympathize with Julia's ceaseless stress and frustration as a working mom, but there's never any reason to feel for her. Julia is annoying, a mom who hates to mother. Among the four episodes watched for review, she has little interaction with her kids and shows almost no interest in them. That's a hard sell. Her constant irritation over her children, her attempts to foist them on others, and her inability to understand how birthday parties, social events, school and day care work are traits that might have looked, on paper, like opportunities for jokes, but her personality ends up being unbelievable at best, grating at worst. 

Julia vs. Amanda is too easy (Martin is flustered and frumpy while Punch is at ease and semiglamorous). Needy Kevin is funny at times, the lone single dad trying to sit at the big table and be respected by the moms, but it's basically a one-note role. Liz, disaffected and sometimes drunk, is also one-note, but she has a few funny moments, like when she nearly slices off her finger while cutting up frozen cheese and still has to coddle the flustered Julia. Other good but simple jokes involve the fact that Julia's husband is always out doing something fun with his male friends and never available to help, while Amanda's husband is stereotypically grumpy, barely acknowledging his or any other kids while talking business on the phone.

Motherland has too many parenting cliches to overcome, despite some funny parts. Nearly all of it is too forced, too set up, too predictable. Parents or not, your time is better spent on Catastrophe.

Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin, Lucy Punch, Paul Ready, Diane Morgan
Writers: Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan, Holly Walsh
The entire first season is available May 10 on Sundance Now