Motherland: accomplished first outing for Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan sitcom

With the parentage of writers Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, Motherland has great comic genes

From left, Philippa Dunne, Diane Morgan, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Paul Ready and Lucy Punch in Motherland. Photograph: Colin Hutton

From left, Philippa Dunne, Diane Morgan, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Paul Ready and Lucy Punch in Motherland. Photograph: Colin Hutton

 

Following the promising conception of its pilot late last year, a new comedy from Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh has finally been delivered in Motherland (BBC Two, Tuesday, 10pm).

As with any newborn, you scour its appearance for signs of that promising parentage: a Horgan smile, say, or a Linehan nose. The first episode of the series is a fairly balanced genetic combination of comedic styles. There is Horgan’s sense of humour, where jokes come with a splash of acid, and Linehan’s love of traditional sitcom plotting, in which resistant characters are thrown into positions of high stress. This all comes together in the shape of a children’s party.

The show nails the London milieu of middle-class motherhood early when Anna Maxwell Martin’s harried professional, Julia, reels into a café to meet friends who are also just about managing with parenthood. She asks at the counter if they serve wine. “We do an elderflower pressé?” comes the hopeful answer. “No, you’ve completely misunderstood me,” says Julia, with such sharpened politeness it could lacerate. Here, then, is another exasperated sitcom star, surrounded by idiots.

The wonderfully sardonic Liz (played by Diane Morgan, Philomena Clunk herself) explains that the birthday party circuit is really a cost-effective form of reciprocal childcare: “Put four caterpillar cakes into one long human centipede; tell them you’ve hidden a pound somewhere and relax; then play Gangham Style and give them undiluted squash. They’ll go fucking mental. It’s all over by 4pm. Done.” What could possibly go wrong?

It’s fascinating that in the ensuing palaver, children are barely seen and never heard. Julia’s son, established in the first moments, never features. Her daughter, the birthday girl, gets sick on the day and is quarantined as Julia fakes normalcy in front of a coterie of alpha mums.

There’s a seesawing quality to some of the jokes, as though the show hasn’t quite agreed on an accommodating tone. The missing-birthday-girl ruse and a less-than-hilarious bit involving a charlatan children’s entertainer feel like vestiges of the pleasing artificiality of a multi-camera sitcom: an innocence of laugh tracks and flimsy studio sets. But the show is filmed as another sussed-out slice of single-camera realism, like Horgan’s Catastrophe, in which Maxwell Martin delivers her sarcasm and occasional invective pretty straight. (Horgan, in similar circumstances, wisely served it up with a smile.)

Still, it’s an accomplished first outing whose identity may soon develop into something all of its own, the way kids do. Sit coms and children, you know, they grow up so fast.

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