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28 November 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 8:25am

Are these the most dislikeable women on TV?

In a British comedy landscape where truly immoral protagonists are overwhelmingly men, Motherland stands out.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The first time we meet Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin), she’s simultaneously brushing her hair, calling in late to work, and shouting at her children – all while driving them to school. The world’s most annoying toy – a Bop-It – yells tinny instructions from the back seat. Suddenly, a temporary traffic light appears in the road ahead, with seemingly no intention of every turning green. Is it any wonder that before we’re even two minutes into the excruciating BBC parenting comedy Motherland, she’s letting out a long scream of pure frustration?

Being a mum is hard, especially if you’re trying to juggle as much as Julia, who struggles to stay on top of her kids, her career, PTA politics, the cleaner, and any remaining semblance of a social life. The stress of it all paints a pretty unflattering picture. Harassed, frazzled, agitated, frantic: these are all words that apply to Julia in Motherland, as we watch her screaming in disgust at plasters curling over her feet at the local swimming pool, shouting at her chronically absent husband over the phone, and begging school staff not to mark her children down as late again. None of those are attributes you’d pick as desirable qualities in a friend, or partner. From the off, Motherland gives you a window into the lives of women at their most strained, so they were never going to be likeable. But we’ve all been there, right? We understand, and we sympathise. Don’t we?

But as Motherland roles on, Julia gets less, not more, sympathetic. In episode one, she forces her own very sick daughter to endure a terrible birthday party purely so she might eventually receive free childcare in the form of reciprocated birthday invites from the other children’s parents. By episode four, she’s shouting at school staff and dishing out mocking compliments left right and centre. She constantly screams at her mother for daring to have a life outside of looking after her grandchildren. She manipulates other parents into doing her favours, before immediately dropping them when they cease to be useful to her. She abandons the only friends who have helped her as soon as an easier option comes up. No waiter, elderly neighbour or teacher is valued for anything other than their ability to help her, or to get in her way.  Julia is rude, sarcastic, scheming and even cruel. Sometimes this is because she’s hapless, tense and at her last resort. Sometimes it’s simply because she’s selfish.

She’s possibly the worst, but by no means the only one. The ostensible villain of the piece is picture-perfect glamour mum Amanda (Lucy Punch), who intentionally intimidates and humiliates the other parents with elaborate power moves, to make sure she stays top dog. Stay-at-home Dad Kevin (Paul Ready) is chillingly obsequious, desperate for any attention and status he can get from other parents. Eye-rolling Liz (Diane Morgan, perhaps better known as Philomena Cunk), the only working-class parent in the picture, has no time for the disingenuousness of the other parents – giving her a bluntness that can sometimes seem like rudeness. But she’s the only likeable person here: a good listener and friend, happy to sacrifice her own time when it’s needed, and the only mum who seems to know what her kids actually enjoy.

Motherland has the sweaty, claustrophic cringe factor of other British comedy shows like Peep Show, The Office, The Inbetweeners and Shameless: TV shows that leave you internally screaming at characters to stop, (please, for the love of God, just stop!) as they continue to behave terribly, falling down a spiral of lies and schemes. But the truly immoral protagonists of comedy, from Mark Corrigan to David Brent to Frank Gallagher, are overwhelmingly men. Yes, there are parallels between Motherland and the farcical humour of Catastrophe, Fleabag or Chewing Gum, but Sharon, Fleabag and Tracey are all vulnerable, empathetic and guilt-ridden enough to keep you on side, unlike their often unapologetic, self-excusing male counterparts.

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In the end, Motherland only partially redeems Julia, who makes attempts to compensate for her bad behaviour, without ever fully reckoning with her selfishness. It’s Liz who finally makes Julia realise she’s becoming a monster. “That was rude,” she says after Julia insults another mother for not including her in a school run carpool. “I’m no fan of Anne, but come on.” “Well, I’m tired,” Julia moans. “No, no, you’re on the make, the whole time, Julia,” Liz shoots back. “The only reason you’re here tonight is because you wanted something.” She points out that they’re not even friends. “I’m a convenience.”

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Julia spends the final episode trying to be a little bit better. She visits the school’s sick caretaker in hospital, but only belatedly realises she’s at the bedside of the wrong guy, and then tries to take the whisky she’s bought him back. She tries to be a better friend to Liz. And she goes round to her mum’s house to say sorry, shouting her non-apology through the letterbox.

“I just wanted to say that I’m… I’m sorry. I mean, I’m not sorry for anything that I’ve done, because obviously you really landed me in it, but I’m sorry we live in a patriarchy and that modern economics is skewed in favour of men! I’m sorry that our generation is so reliant on our parents as a result. So I am sorry for the system. I APOLOGISE FOR THE SYSTEM! …Which I have to say that your generation is almost entirely responsible for. But I’m not blaming all that on you, mum! Mum?”

It’s a hideous rejection of any self-examination, conveniently using feminism to justify her personally, specifically horrible behaviour, whilst ignoring her own sexist assumptions that her mother doesn’t deserve a fulfilling life outside of her family, that she should simply be permanently on hand to play the role of loving grandmother and free babysitter. It’s even more annoying because there’s a grain of truth in it – the only character less likeable than Julia is her husband, whom we only catch glimpses of through Julia’s desperate phone calls to him asking for help, as he apologises profusely that he simply cannot miss this stag do on a narrow boat, or go-carting session with colleagues, even though he’d really much rather be at home with the kids.

By the end of the final episode, Julia is running late for school, and screeching “Unbelievable!” at her mother again. The fact that she bothers to say “Morning!” as she rushes past the school caretaker, now he’s returned to work, is the only weak hint that she has changed at all. But, at least from a viewer’s perspective, why should she? Motherland has painted a blisteringly accurate portrait of a horrible, self-absorbed mother – and had an awful lot of fun with it, too.