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15 September 2016

Could the BBC’s Motherland be the British answer to American “bad parenting” comedies?

“I really admire how you can just switch off your family and focus on your job. I would just hate myself too much.”

By Anna Leszkiewicz

A perfectly manicured hand sweeps a plastic box of shop-bought doughnut holes to the floor. A blonde woman leans aggressively over a schooltable. “I am going to destroy you,” she whispers to the woman sat behind it.

This is how confrontation between mothers is figured in Bad Moms – ridiculous, overblown, a fantasy of how people would address one another in their most antagonistic dreams. During the film’s battle between the shiny, perfect mothers who run the Parent-Teacher Association, and the more average parents who hope to dethrone them, mothers blackmail teachers, plant drugs on each other’s children, threaten to punch each other “in the tits”. It’s a brand of adults-behaving-irresponsibly-around-children comedy shared by Bad Neighbours 2, Bad Teacher and Bad Santa: silly, at times funny, and always American.

Enter Motherland, a new pilot (yet to be commissioned for a full series) from the BBC. With more of an edge than typical BBC family sitcoms like Outnumbered and My Family, it bases itself around a concept similar to Bad Moms’s: the cool mums verses the struggling ones. In Motherland, working mum Julia, single mum Liz and stay-at-home dad Kevin are desperate to win the approval of the Alpha Mums. Lead by queen bee Amanda (Lucy Punch, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Christina Applegate’s Gwendolyn), the Alpha Mums have organic food, perfect hairdos, doting husbands – and plenty of time to look after their children. In short, everything Julia, Liz and Kevin don’t.

Like Bad Moms, there is a class dimension to Motherland that colours every competitive situation between parents. “I just don’t know how you can leave your kids all day and go to work,” Gwendolyn marvels in Bad Moms, falsely muttering to her friends, “I just love how hard she works.” In Motherland, too, Amanda shows Julia the same fake anxiety. “You work so hard,” she drawls. “I really admire how you can just switch off your family and focus on your job, because – this is my personal thing – I would just hate myself too much. I just love my kids too much!”

In both shows, the cool parents have a lot more disposable income than their peers – in Bad Moms, Gwendolyn’s spending is lavish, performative and ridiculous, as she pays for Martha Stewart to cater a PTA party, and eventually wins over the other mothers by taking them for a ride in her private jet. In Motherland, class preoccupations are in the finer details, and even more obsessed over: Liz’s frozen cheese verses Amanda’s fresh pasta, Amanda’s Airbnb side-line a more acceptable money-maker than Julia’s full time job in events.

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But in Motherland, explosive exchanges are few and far between. Instead, the comedy comes from a typically British preoccupation with what is left unsaid, the power play in every parent’s interaction is deliberately passive aggressive. Julia would rather end up buried knee-deep in elaborate lies about her child being bullied than admit she forgot it was half term, while Kevin’s desperation to fit in with the cool mothers is revealed by his faux-feminist concern over breastfeeding in restaurants:

I wonder if Amanda knows about the situation up at Toasties? Another breastfeeding incident. They asked Deirdre to cover up. I tell you, Liz, if it was men doing the feeding there would be blokes all over this cafe with their breasts out. I’m just gonna see if Amanda heard about it…

In fact, the most aggressive moment in the show comes when Amanda offers to make Julia an omelette. Never have the words “Do you want me to cook you an omelette?” been delivered with such fantastic, concern-trolling bile, the question “Does anyone else want food?” such a thinly-veiled threat. In the end, that’s what makes Motherland the more violent show. While it might not have the sucker punch of American physical comedy, it leaves the viewer itching thanks to its British brand of poisonous wit.

Listen below to hear Anna discussing Motherland on SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman:

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