Tuesday 20 August 2019

Motherland: all whine and no heart - so is this all it is?

Yes, we all get that motherhood can be a harried affair - but where is the heart, writes Sarah Caden

WHERE IS THE LOVE? From left, Philippa Dunne, Diane Morgan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Paul Ready and Lucy Punch in ‘Motherland’
WHERE IS THE LOVE? From left, Philippa Dunne, Diane Morgan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Paul Ready and Lucy Punch in ‘Motherland’

Sarah Caden

'The uncensored truth about parenting," was how the BBC introduced the first episode of Motherland last Wednesday night. "So is this your world?"

To a great extent, yes, the world of Motherland is my world. I expected to watch the travails of Julia, its chief protagonist and relate utterly. Much like me, she's a middle-class working mother of two under-10s, doing all the 21st-century juggling, the jigsaw of childcare and the pressure to keep up with the Joneses.

Motherland, written by Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, is concerned with Julia, an events organiser who is doing her best to make everything work and make everyone happy. She falls short most of the time and hates herself for it and is, well, pretty angry with the world. Her husband is a fairly useless boy-man. Her friends are dry-witted Liz, who likes a drink and takes a that'll-do approach to life, and Kevin, an emasculated stay-at-home dad.

Julia's nemeses are the alpha-mums, led by Amanda, a coiffed, always-made-up bitch who likes to point out Julia's failings to the amusement of her alpha-underlings.

The friends matter, of course, but in Motherland, the enemies matter more, because this is a sitcom about how everything about being a parent - actually, specifically, a mother - is awful.

Sitting down to episode one, I fully expected to relate and rejoice at being recognised, but instead, as it rolled on, I felt overwhelmingly annoyed and, ultimately, sad. I laughed a few times, make no mistake, but the sense of grimness was more powerful.

In the first episode, Julia stumbles into hosting a birthday party for her daughter Ivy, in her home and for tens of children. At the episode's start, she's planning a small gathering at a pizza restaurant, but Liz's suggestion that she'll get quid pro quo playdates if she has a drop-off party at her house, plus some alpha-mum peer pressure, sees Julia blunder into inviting all and sundry to her house. Which goes horribly wrong as she forgets to tell the mothers that they're to drop and go - staying instead to nastily assess Julia's decor - and Ivy falls ill on the day. Oh and Julia's husband is at a football match.

The laughs at the party are to be had from the awful entertainer Julia has hired, the horrible Minion cake she tried to bake, the near-miss as a bowl used for puking is then used for crisps. Julia hates herself for failing. She hates her child for being sick. She takes solace in resentment and white wine. She scowls and sweats and sees no good in anything. I felt myself seeing why the other mothers found her unlikeable and if I was married to her, I'd have preferred to watch paint drying rather than endure the party with her.

Julia is the victim of pretty much everyone. The other mothers, her husband, her own mother who wants a responsibility-free grandparenthood, and even her children. Ivy's illness, like everything else in Motherhood, is just sent to thwart and test Julia, who may once have had a personality setting that went beyond harried and put-upon, but there was no trace of it last Wednesday night. The credits rolled and I hated Julia and everything she stood for and it took me a couple of days to pick apart this powerful rejection of her and of Motherland.

In the end, I realised that I hated the depiction of Julia as a victim of motherhood. Julia is a woman who seems to have a good education, a decent job, nice clothes, a fairly well-turned out house and a good address. She has a lot going for her and the only thing spoiling all of it is those pesky kids, whom, we can only assume, she actually chose to have. And, perhaps, though Motherland gives no real indication of this, she probably loves.

Sharon Horgan
Sharon Horgan

I wanted to love Motherland, specifically because I think Sharon Horgan is a brilliant writer with a really original perspective. I also love Catastrophe, which she wrote with Rob Delaney and through three series of which they play a couple who get pregnant after a one-night stand and somehow fashion a life and a family from that point. It's a comedy about the messiness of life and love and how catastrophes aren't the end of the world and how love is a cat's cradle of contradictions.

If you can't commit to all three seasons of Catastrophe, let me direct you to the fourth episode of the first season as proof of the above. In it, the characters, Sharon and Rob, are told that there is a one-in-50 chance that the baby has Down's syndrome. In the following 20-odd minutes, there's the inevitable distress at the prospect of having a child with a disability, but there's also incredible heart and humour.

Rob tells Sharon his uncle has DS and how he loved hanging out with him. She points out that Rob probably doesn't have much to do with his uncle now that he's an adult. Sharon cites the mother whom she would see in the supermarket looking "old and really tired".

"Who whistles their way around the supermarket?" Rob counters. "Maybe they went home, watched Judge Judy and had a great time."

In the penultimate scene of that Catastrophe episode, Sharon gets a call from her doctor, after which she tells Rob that everything is fine. We don't hear what the doctor says or know what's "fine". That ambiguity continues in the final scene, when, on the street, she sees a little girl with DS. Sharon waves at her, she compliments the child to her mother, she looks at them and smiles and cries.

It's not pity. Or maybe it is, a bit. It's not relief. Or maybe it is, a bit. It's not regret. Or maybe it is, a bit. It's all of those things and the ambiguity is incredibly powerful and real and not just powerful to someone like me with a child with DS. It's powerful because it's about the deeply confusing experience of wanting to be a parent, being a parent, being pulled in opposite directions by the need to be needed and the resentment of that need. That was Sharon Horgan's skill with Catastrophe - it captured the messy meaning of love and how it can live side by side with hate without being obliterated by it.

Love is unnervingly absent from Motherland. Maybe, in the writing, there were too many cooks. All four of the writers are parents.

Perhaps they all brought their gripes to the table and thus the show ended up being an accumulation of carping without room for anything else.

Yes, there is too much pressure today on parents - women in particular - to do everything and to do it perfectly, but this trend into which Motherland taps, that of being 'hilariously' crap at everything is just as bad. Children are inconvenient and life-sapping, most fathers are useless idiots and mothers are moaning, show-me-the-wine, messing-up madwomen. There is truth in these characterisations, of course, and humour to be cranked from them, too. But, as the song goes, Is That All There Is?

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