The title of the BBC sitcom Motherland, which aired in the U.K. last year and premieres stateside today on the streaming platform Sundance Now, refers to the hidden world that parents of small children inhabit. For Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin), a harried working mother of two with no help, this world is a dark place. In Motherland, no one can hear you scream.
Despite its focus on child-rearing, Motherland is a significantly different show than Catastrophe, the series that Horgan created and stars in alongside American comedian and writer Rob Delaney. On Catastrophe, Horgan plays a woman who is accidentally impregnated during a fling with a visiting American businessman (Delaney), turning both of their worlds upside down. Motherland, which Horgan co-created with veteran British-TV writer Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan, and Holly Walsh, focuses squarely on the dynamics between parents whose children go to school together. The show unfolds at a breakneck pace, with a kind of ticking-clock scenario to each episode — almost like 24 but for parenting instead of terrorism. Partners are referenced but rarely appear onscreen, and the children are mostly noisy abstractions. Julia’s husband is perpetually unavailable; we only ever see him when he’s calling her from some outing with his mates from which he can’t possibly get away. And her mother (Ellie Haddington) has washed her hands of childcare in her retirement, to Julia’s perpetual frustration. She’s forced to band together with the deadpan Liz (Diane Morgan), a divorced single mother, and the enthusiastic Kevin (Paul Ready), a stay-at-home dad. Their mutual foe is Amanda (Lucy Punch), the impossibly polished Queen Bee mom.
I spoke to Horgan over the phone about the loneliness of raising children, the saving grace of unexpected friendships, and the ceaseless dread of being a working parent. Happy Mother’s Day!
Relationships between parents of young children are rarely depicted in any kind of detail on TV or in movies, even though these people probably see more of one another than their own families. Were you and the other writers inspired by your own experiences as working parents?
One hundred percent. It was predominantly about wanting to explore how it feels to find your place — it’s like being back at school yourself. From the first day when you take your kid to school, you are looking for friends almost as actively as they are. If you don’t find your crew, you’re kind of screwed. We wanted to find a way into that that made sense, and we did that through Julia. Liz is heavily based on a friend of mine who I met because of the school drop, and we’re still friends ten, eleven years on. We tried to capture the loneliness of being a parent.
Throughout the season I kept wondering if Julia and her husband were even still together because he’s so absent. But I found it interesting that she never really has it out with him; the season ends with that whole relationship kind of unresolved.
We very specifically wanted [the show] to be about the friendships and not about the [romantic] relationships. We never see Kevin’s wife, for example, but we had a full backstory for her, for ourselves. But with Paul, Julia’s husband, it just felt like a good joke to us — he always has something to do that’s work-based but that’s 25 times more fun than what she’s doing. When you go to work, that’s the easy bit. It’s when you come home that the work starts. You know — “Ugh, I’ve got a dinner thing.” You poor thing! You’ve gotta go eat dinner and drink wine. You don’t have to do the fucking bath time and wrestle a child into bed.
This show can be very stressful, with Julia basically in a constant panic. I’m not a parent myself, but I can imagine if I was I’d get PTSD flashbacks watching this. Was that something you wanted the audience to feel as well?
Did you ever worry that it would be too effective at relaying that kind of panic?
We knew we couldn’t keep up the pace of the pilot, but over the series there’s still an element of [Julia] desperately trying to get things done in a limited amount of time. We tried to take our foot off the accelerator so it’s not overwhelmingly, insanely paced. We spent a lot of time concentrating on jokes as well, so there’s that buffer. At the same time, I think it’s important to show that [panic], because that’s what it feels like. I’m ambling home at the moment because I have these calls to do, but normally I’m sweating on a train somewhere, looking at my watch, hoping I get back before bedtime.
A lot of critics in the British press wrote about how unsympathetic and self-centered Julia is, which surprised me. It seems like the whole point of the show is to demonstrate how hard it is to work and raise children without any help.
Nobody gives a shit if a male character is unsympathetic. We just wanted to concentrate on her being funny and real, struggling through this really difficult world and coming out the other side alive.
The relationship between Julia and her mother felt very British to me. It is pretty brutal how her mother wants nothing to do with the childcare.
Oh, wow, I thought you were gonna say the opposite — like, it’s brutal how Julia’s treating her.
No, I think her mother is brutal!
Oh, no, I think fair play to her! She’s done it for years, screw that! She should be putting her feet up! She should be enjoying her retirement! The area that I live in in London, I absolutely love it, but it’s full of parents — you can’t breathe for pushchairs. I noticed that so many of the women pushing pushchairs were definitely not mothers, they were grandmothers. I used to see them and they would look so tired. I mean, you live in an expensive city, and childcare’s really expensive. But give your poor mother a break! We were more worried about Julia seeming like an ogre for expecting her mother to watch the kids.
Why did you decide not to write yourself into this show?
I worried that it would make it too much of a Catastrophe crossover. If I was in it, it would have felt too similar in some ways. And it’s a lot of fun casting a show like that, and watching those girls do their thing. It was a pleasure.
Lastly, are you excited for Harry and Meghan?
I couldn’t give a shit.
The first two episodes of Motherland are streaming on Sundance Now as of today. New episodes will be released every Thursday.
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