Motherland review: Frazzled mums and perfect one-liners - this sharp parenting comedy is still a joy to watch

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<p>They’re back!</p> (BBC /  Merman)

They’re back!

(BBC / Merman)

Anna Maxwell Martin has got the range. Fresh from enraging the nation as Line of Duty’s icy Chief Superintendent Patricia Carmichael, passive aggression incarnate in a roll-neck jumper, she’s back on our screens reprising a role that’s Pat’s polar opposite.

As Motherland’s woman-on-the-verge Julia, she is only ever one minor annoyance (a babysitter cancelling, say, or an unexpected visit from the in-laws who travel slowly through her kitchen like that container ship stuck in the Suez Canal) away from collapsing into an existential scream.

After spending the first series trying to flat-out deny the possibility of ever making “mum friends,” Julia is now the highly-strung ringleader of a gang of school gate misfits, including world-weary Liz (a scene-stealing Diane Morgan, dishing out one-liners in monotone), no-bullshit Meg (Tanya Moodie) and wet blanket Kevin (Paul Ready), the token dad. In the hands of a writing team that includes Sharon Horgan and comedian Holly Walsh, it’s a premise that’s ripe for comedy - and total chaos.

Julia, Liz and pals are back for round threeBBC / Merman
Julia, Liz and pals are back for round threeBBC / Merman

Series three kicks off with some unwelcome news: standing at a podium bearing the slogan “Comb, shampoo, comb,” a teacher confirms that a nit epidemic is tearing through the school. They’re trying to identify patient zero, and any pupils carrying head lice will have to isolate at home. The Covid parody feels a little too on the nose for a show as cleverly observed as this one, but once the briefing is over, the episode finds its stride. Julia’s mum Marion, who took a funny turn at sports day last season, is finally set to move out of her daughter’s home on Saturday - so she’s less than thrilled when self-appointed queen bee Amanda (Lucy Punch) reveals she’s pre-emptively cancelled her son’s birthday party in case it turns into a super-spreader event, nixing Julia’s free childcare.

Her daughter Ivy, meanwhile, has been identified as patient zero in the lice outbreak, meaning she’s shunned by her school friends when Julia drags her to the park during their “isolation” period. “I’m a stay-at-home dad, I’m used to being treated like a turd in a swimming pool,” sighs a sympathetic Kevin. He’s on especially melancholic form this time around, as the tensions in his marriage - obvious to everyone apart from him since series one, episode one - have reached breaking point, prompting his wife Jill (who remains eternally offstage, like Godot) to retreat to her office in the attic - “she’s straight up the loft ladder like a chinchilla” - and eventually ask for a divorce.

The break-up, which leads Kevin to start swigging Bailey’s from the bottle and enact some poetic justice on loft-dwelling Jill, is not the only revelation to rock the “nit blitz” party that Julia hosts (for entirely self-interested reasons). A phone call from her mum’s doctor telling her to hold fire on the move causes her to run upstairs and scream into a pile of towels, only to bump into Meg’s husband Bill (Anthony Head), who is reeling from news that will put the rest of their concerns into stark perspective.

Kevin, left, is going through a tough timeBBC / Merman
Kevin, left, is going through a tough timeBBC / Merman

The jumpers may be slightly more chic this time around (perhaps the gang has been blackmailed into buying up leftover stock from Amanda’s boutique, Hygge Tygge, though Julia’s latest puffa coat still makes her look “like an angry purple sleeping bag,” as Liz puts it) but over-extended Covid metaphor aside, the jokes are as sharp as ever. It’s tough to decide who gets the best one-liners, which seem to have been dished out ever so democratically in the writers’ room, though Amanda might just have the edge.

She is still a perfectly coiffed nightmare, putting down her minion, the endlessly exploitable Anne (Phillipa Dunne), at every available opportunity. When Liz reveals she’s just had a job interview at a shoe shop on the high street, Amanda starts to grill her sidekick about a completely fictional stint behind the counter at Greggs. “I never worked at Greggs, I was head of product development at GlaxoSmithKline worldwide,” Anne pipes up, prompting her frenemy to twist the knife a little bit more. “I can’t picture you working in an office, Anne,” she frowns. “I see you… with cakes and puffs.”

Handled differently, a comedy about a group of middle-class Acton mums could have been unbearably twee, but with its acutely observed characters, knockout cast and knack for wringing hilarity from the most banal of events, Motherland is an unhinged delight, by turns savage and sweet. With secondary school selection looming (episode two brilliantly skewers catchment area paranoia, which sees Julia embrace Catholicism with newfound fervour) here’s hoping this isn’t the gang’s last hurrah.

Motherland is on BBC Two at 9pm on Mondays, catch up on BBC iPlayer.

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