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10 May 2021

Why Motherland is the funniest show on TV

I never thought we’d be lucky enough to get a third series of this show, but now it’s here, it feels so right. Isn’t it what we deserve?

By Rachel Cooke

And so we return to Motherland, where the air smells faintly of scented candle and passive aggression, and 98.5 per cent of all the milky coffee sold is made with organic Oatly (the other 1.5 percent is consumed mostly by Diane Morgan’s Liz, who would order Nescafé Original if only it was available). I never thought we’d be lucky enough to get a third series of this show, the funniest and most lacerating on TV. Call me paranoid, but I convinced myself that Mumsnet, Holly Willoughby and Kirstie Allsopp would between them somehow contrive to see it off (either that, or it would be replaced by a series of films in which a famous woman goes on about the menopause “taboo” while simultaneously inviting us to admire her unfeasibly narrow waist). But now it’s here, it feels so right. Isn’t it what we deserve, all those of us who, whether parents or not, simply cannot bear to talk for more than 20 seconds about catchment areas? Who remain unaccountably busy despite never having knowingly planned a weekend playdate? 

The pandemic has not, it appears, been visited upon our friends in south-west London (OK, I know Sharon Horgan et al’s show could be set anywhere, but you must allow me my prejudices). However, other infestations are in evidence – and that’s even before we get to Tamara, Amanda’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend. Plague number one: nits. At school, the head teacher, talking of social distancing and quarantines, stands behind a familiar-looking lectern on which a loud yellow sign reads: COMB-SHAMPOO-COMB (happily, there are signs “the nit curve is starting to plateau”). Plague number two: divorce. First it was Amanda (Lucy Punch). Now it’s Kevin (Paul Ready). Having spent years telling himself that intimacy can take many forms other than sex – listening to Radio 4 together while he “scrubs the hob”, for instance – the jig is now up. Jill is calling in the lawyers. Why? asks the ever loyal Liz. “My night breathing mainly,” says Kevin. “And the way I chew.” Like Maris, Niles Crane’s off-camera wife in Frasier, we never see the terrifying Jill; Kevin can tell us that she races up their loft ladder “like a chinchilla” the minute she arrives home from work, and the image is irrefutably perfect, because it exists only in our minds. 

To be fair, I wouldn’t want Kevin to touch me, or even to run one of his sensual baths for me (especially not that). But I love him all the same, the big drip, just as I love Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin), whose rictus smile could not be tighter if it was a pair of Spanx. (Thanks to the fact that her ailing mother has moved in with her, she now spends quite a lot of time screaming into towels and other household items.) As for Liz, if she existed in real life, I would stalk her on social media until she agreed – my jewel, my queen! – to come round for a bottle of not-quite-cold-enough-but-it’ll-do sauvignon, and a bowl of cheesy Wotsits. At Julia’s Nitz Blitz party, Liz asks the woman who is to treat everyone’s hair with kerosene shampoo how she got into the lice business. The woman explains that she used to work in an STD clinic. “So you started with crabs, and worked your way up,” says Liz, whose increasingly creative way with the word “balls”, or indeed anything at all testicle-related, causes me to experience the kind of awe I once reserved only for poetry and the wilder shores of Morrissey. 

This series (I’ve also seen episode two) is darker than the last, its jokes tethered to the painful realities involved in ageing parents, serious illness and marital loneliness – a chiaroscuro that only makes it the funnier. If you don’t laugh out loud at Julia’s manic visit to a Catholic church (yes, catchment areas), during which she speaks cod Latin and blows out a votive candle as if it’s stuck in icing on a birthday cake, you should probably check for your pulse. But it also has a wild new energy. If Motherland has always felt pleasingly blasphemous to me, a total heretic when it comes to 21st-century family pieties, it now seems to be in the process of becoming a Trojan horse for rank social insurgency: a revolution in a four-wheel drive and a Uniqlo puffer jacket. Hell, even Kevin’s getting in on the act. Nothing is going to stop him from teaching Jill a lesson by locking her in her precious loft – though when the guilt begins to set in, he will at least be able to comfort himself that she has two bottles of San Pellegrino and a mini Babybel for company. 

Motherland returns to BBC Two on 10 May at 9pm

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