“Did you try calling my husband? Oh, you just called me.” That’s Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) in Motherland, the BBC’s new sitcom about the reality of being a mother. Motherhood, of course, is presented to us by the deceitful world of TV as a beautiful time of sanguine purpose and light-hearted farce – where all of life’s problems are made better by a laugh and a cuddle at the end of a stressful day. Mothers and kids, eh? What are they like? Mothers and mothers, though, is another matter entirely – and Motherland doesn’t pull any punches, as it throws us into the ring of child-rearing chaos and hits us with blow after blow of stress, barely contained rage and flat-out hilarity.
Written by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan and Father Ted’s Graham Linehan, plus Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, it should come as no surprise that the script is laced with constant spiky barbs and laugh-out-loud humour, but what does surprise is how honest the show is. Julia having to throw a birthday party for her daughter in Episode 1 isn’t a source of joy or excitement, but one of endless frustration – from the perils of potentially toxic homemade cakes to the challenge of having to keep the guests entertained. (One solution, involving a naff child entertainer and some cats, is hysterically, pathetically believable.)
But none of that compares to the pressure of having to face the scrutiny of the middle-class Alpha Mums, who sit around in the local cafe and plan fundraisers for the school. Lucy Punch is marvellously snooty as their queen bee, Amanda, humiliating everyone around her with an overly-friendly sneer. She’s offset beautifully by a scene-stealing Diane Morgan (aka. Philomena Cunk) as free-wheeling, down-to-earth parent Liz, whose idea of party planning is getting kids hyper on undiluted squash, then throwing a pound coin into the living room and ordering them to find it.
The script mines the contrast between the working and middle-class mums to amusingly awkward ends – all served up with a delicious slice of bitterness. That mostly comes from Anna Maxwell Martin, who is superb as Julia, a walking landmine just waiting to explode at the unfairness and exhaustion of it all: her husband is damningly portrayed as a hands-off dad who is too busy go-karting and going to the football to lend a helping hand. Running frantically around with her sprogs in tow, Maxwell Martin’s put-upon everywoman is just one forced smile away from snapping – and even her own mum turns out to be tragically useless.
That sea of snapping, sucking up and staying calm doesn’t sugarcoat the impossibility of juggling work, family and everything else in between – compared to the usual family sitcoms, this is like My Family: The Horror Movie. Fittingly, Julia’s daughter barely even makes an appearance: the focus here is solely on the adults, from a competitive charity at school to the sappy presence of Kevin (Paul Ready), a stay-at-home dad who just wants to be accepted as part of the club, but, bless him, wants it a little too much. By the time he’s putting on 50 coats at once to impress everyone, you’ll be giggling non-stop at the stupidity of the whole situation, but any sense of familiar sitcom farce is undermined by frank bursts of fear and recognition: like Maxwell Martin’s Julia, twitching between fake grins and a mask of genuine terror, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry, whether to sympathise or be shocked. The result is an enjoyably candid portrait of 21st century mothering that celebrates the little achivements, from finding your niche in a new social minefield to getting through a day keeping your kid alive. You’ll laugh, even as you’re watch through your fingers. Acerbic, witty and borderline panic-inducing, this is modern motherhood laid mercilessly bare for all to see.
Motherland is available as a box set on BBC iPlayer until 11th January 2018.