Sundance Now's Motherland Isn't a Catastrophe, but It's Not Catastrophe, Either

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Sundance Now's <i>Motherland</i> Isn't a Catastrophe, but It's Not <i>Catastrophe</i>, Either

While trying to write this review, I re-enrolled my daughter in extended day for next year, figured out which parents are coming on an upcoming Girl Scout overnight trip, ordered food for a family party this weekend, signed up for field day and did countless (and I do mean countless) loads of laundry. The sink is still full of dishes. Piles of winter clothes need to be sorted through and spring clothes need to be put into rotation. My hair is still wet. I’ve eaten a power bar and spoonfuls of leftover mac and cheese for breakfast. I would do anything for someone to bring me an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Suffice it to say, in many ways, I get Motherland and Motherland gets me. From the school fundraisers to the birthday parties to the in-law visits and parent-teacher conferences, the comedy, which counts Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan as one of its writers and creators, explores the harried life of being a mom. Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) has two children—a boy and a girl, as she responds with exasperation to anyone who asks. When Julia’s mom, Marion (Ellie Haddinton), who has been caring for her grandchildren, abruptly resigns from her unpaid position, a frazzled Julia is furious. “I really want the children to be brought up like I was… by my mother,” she tells her husband.

Suddenly, Julia has to figure it all out herself. Her kids are five and nine, so you get the sense of how unfairly she’s been relying on her mom. Julia meets single mom Liz (Diane Morgan), who doesn’t care what the other moms think of her, sycophantic stay-at-home dad Kevin (Paul Ready), and bitchy perfect mom Amanda (Lucy Punch), who runs her mom clique with the cruelty of a 16-year-old girl. Punch is a hoot and definitely one of the highlights of the series. She’s perfected the art of delivering the backhanded compliment: “I really admire how you can just switch off your family and focus on your job because—and this is my personal thing—I would just hate myself too much,” she tells Julia, her sickly sweet smile firmly intact.

The show is full of terrific one-liners and situations any mom will recognize. When Julia laments that breakfast drives her crazy because her kids never know what they want to eat, Liz replies “What? Do you ask them?” Where the show falters is in making Julia so utterly clueless about how to manage her life. I mean, who doesn’t know how birthday parties work? “It’s not my fault that you haven’t organized your child care,” her mom tells her, and I agree. I’m firmly on #TeamMarion. But you get the sense that the show wants us to think Marion is in the wrong, which is ridiculous. On another occasion, Julia goes to a pool party before having to attend a huge work function. She’s dressed up in a designer white suit and her hair is perfectly coiffed. Guess what happens next. I also found it frustrating that, for someone so consistently frantic, she had a lot of time to sit around the tea shop and drink tea and eat pastries.

There’s also the problem of Julia’s husband, Paul (Oliver Chris), who, in seven episodes, we never see in the house with the children. Anytime Julia calls him, he’s watching a football game with friends, at a bachelor party, or at a team-building experience for work. But Paul’s constant absenteeism is a clichéd joke that gets old fairly quickly. Why would Julia (or anyone, for that matter) put up with a husband like that? Their marriage is non-existent.

The thing about British comedies is that they can easily move from awkwardly funny to just cringe-inducing, like the difference between Michael Scott on the American version of The Office and David Brent on the original UK version. Too often, Motherland isn’t funny; it’s just plain uncomfortable. Julia doesn’t seem to like her children much. You never get the sense that she loves them. They’re simply one more thing she has to deal with. She’s willing to have almost anyone take care of them so she doesn’t have to. She’s incredibly selfish and self-centered. “I haven’t seen you give two craps about anything that doesn’t benefit you,” Amanda tells her.

One of the benefits of Sundance Now making all seven episodes available to critics is that some of the issues that were bothering me are addressed before the first season comes to a close, but not enough. Horgan’s other series, Catastrophe has a similarly caustic look at parenting, but it also has heart. Motherland plays out like a live-action cartoon, making parenting a one-note joke.

Motherland is now available on Sundance Now.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .