he third season of Motherland starts as it means to go on: with an “absolute nitshow”. As an official arrives to brief parents at the state primary school, every unravelling mother in the land will wish she didn’t recognise herself. The nit expert urges parents to comply with the guidelines: “Combing … shampooing … combing again,” which is only marginally less laughable than the government’s “stay alert” slogan it is satirising. But it is not too soon for the pandemic to get the Motherland treatment – if it came in a bottle, it would look, smell and perform precisely like nit shampoo.
Five taut, hilarious and occasionally problematic episodes later, Motherland ends with something less expected – an appearance by Paul, Julia’s perennially absent husband. It is a love scene of sorts, if by love scene you mean a husband and wife who can barely stand each other going to the pub. Partners who are missing in action are a cruel running joke in Motherland. Their absence is part of what makes the mums (plus Kevin) so unhinged, lonely and embittered. This season also includes Kevin’s never-before-seen wife, Jill, constantly disappearing up the loft ladder “like a chinchilla” before asking for a divorce. Never mind, says Kevin. “Intimacy takes many forms, like listening to Radio 4 together while I scrub the hob.” Ha. Anche, sob.
Although Motherland remains Sharon Horgan’s angry baby, this is the first series in which she is credited as a producer and not a writer. felicemente, the rest of the season two team – Holly Walsh, Helen Serafinowicz and Barunka O’Shaughnessy – have done a solid job of retaining Horgan’s signature blend of comedy: lacerating, farcical, painfully British (sebbene, ovviamente, Horgan is Irish). It is as if you can sense the attempt with each killer line – the tragedy of your kids going off you when you fart in front of them, say – to induce the giant, dirty Horgan laugh we know so well from Catastrophe.
A volte, the more such top-notch sitcoms go on, the more the characters better themselves. To which Motherland, to borrow the words Julia uses when she is wished a happy Mother’s Day, dice: "Oh, shove it up your hole.” The mums (plus Kevin) of Motherland remain a bunch of infantile, and infantilised, horrors. The only character who vaguely redeems herself this season is Amanda (Lucy Punch), when she apologies to Anne for treating her like a doormat (and not even one she would sell at hyggetygge.org). Panchine vuote ai PMQ in mezzo alla furia per l'incapacità di Johnson di fare un lavoro, immediately afterwards, she launches into an excruciating dance at a PTA fundraiser that “received 400 likes on TikTok”. I will never be able to strip it from my eyeballs.
Naturalmente, Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) remains a rictus-grinned nightmare in a puffer jacket, whose only grace is her ability to veer from an unfinished panic attack to sucking up to a nun in an attempt to get her kids into the local Catholic school. Her worst nightmare is realised when her mother moves in, which means Julia has to scream into the bathroom towels and start fancying Garry the builder. In a beautifully acted scene in the finale, the mask of desperation drops as Julia confesses to Garry’s voicemail. She feels unloved. E, as the heartbreaking self-fulfilling prophecy goes, it has made her unlovable.
But this is really Amanda’s season. She remains a vortex of self-regard and snobbery – the mum who dresses her son up as Connell from Normal People for World Book Day – and gets all the best lines. In a beautifully observed episode about the monstrosity of emotions surrounding Mother’s Day, she goes out for lunch with her mother, played to frosty perfection by Joanna Lumley. It is amazing how a lifetime of dysfunctionality can be summed up by a mother and daughter ordering “another glass of dry white wine” in unison.
Much less successful is Motherland’s attempt to tackle race and racism. This brings me to Meg, the posh, alcoholic, possibly bipolar, high-flying executive mum introduced in the second series to represent the logical – as in insane – conclusion of having it all. Meg’s race was barely noted, which was weird, and just plain wrong, in a satire on urban, bianco, middle-class life. Any opportunities to mock the white middle classes’ inability to talk about race were not taken.
A series later, Meg seems to have had a complete personality transplant. She is now a meek mum with breast cancer and almost no good lines. In an episode in which her daughter has experienced racism at school and the nightmare climaxes on a bus trip, Meg functions mainly as a vehicle for exploring the white characters’ failings. It sticks out like a dad at the school gate, because in every other aspect Motherland is mercilessly on the nose.
I am not saying that three white writers can’t write a sharp, funny comedy about race relations in modern London, but it hasn’t happened here. Motherland is at its best when it is skewering what it knows: the snobbery, hypocrisy and narcissism of a specific strain of white, middle-class London, plus the hellscape of the school gate. And when it is at its best, it is glorious.