Sharon Horgan’s ‘Motherland’ divorces from TV tradition

A scene from the show 'Motherland' that divorces from TV tradition

Sharon Horgan swears it wasn’t her idea to premiere Motherland for U.S. audiences just before Mother’s Day. The affecting BBC satire — which she co-created in 2016 with IT Crowd mastermind Graham Linehan, his wife Helen Linehan and comedian Holly Walsh — finally arrives stateside Thursday. And even if Horgan didn’t brainstorm the timing, she appreciates the winking intent from Sundance Now, the show’s U.S. broadcast partner.

“I can’t take credit for that,” Horgan, the creator of HBO’s blackly humorous marital deep-dive Divorce and co-creator of the Amazon-affiliated anti-romantic comedy Catastrophe, said. “But when we were told it, we were thrilled.”

Motherland, par for Horgan’s point of view, actively rebukes rote paeans to childrearing. The seven episodes of season one (season two is said to be filming later this year) shadow several wildly different multitasking caretakers in the suffocating space between school drop-off and pickup — one of whom is a meek stay-at-home dad played pitiably by Paul Ready, a decision that further flouts convention. The show follows the parents as they try to wrest some semblance of true friendship and self from the clutches of unrelenting matriarchal matters. They are, in effect, the ones who’ve been kidnapped.

Speaking recently via phone from the U.K., where she resides with her husband and two children, Horgan mused on her show’s ensemble of misfits (led by Anna Maxwell Martin as the overtaxed and neurotic Julia), the evolution of TV moms and her hope that depictions of still-underrepresented family figureheads find their way into people’s homes.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Mic: One of Motherland’s four central moms, Kevin, is actually a dad, and none of them are like the other. Is Motherland more of a big tent for all free-falling parents?

Sharon Horgan: Yeah, I think that’s what it kind of turned out to be. But initially, Motherland was supposed to be a time and place, that time of the day where the only people walking around are the parents who have chosen or are given the task of being that first-call parent, and anyone else who happens to wander around — students, and maybe homeless people. That area that’s populated by people who are only connected because they had children at the same time.

It’d be hard to imagine this show being made for American TV and allowed to be so insular, without exploring the children and spouses’ interior lives.

SH: It becomes like the opposite of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. We want [the kids and spouses] to be noise and chaos and background, awful noise that follows you around. We really wanted it to be about those poor women and that one poor man and how they get through the day and what it takes to finally surrender yourself to those friendships [with other parents]. From my own experience of being a working mother, sometimes those relationships can be very fleeting and sometimes they can be these relationships you don’t really expect.

For generations, TV moms scarcely had an identity outside of their kids. Are shows like Motherland and Catastrophe a corrective to that? When did you notice the pendulum swinging?

SH: It was definitely in response to that. I felt like the females who were depicted in any family comedy or drama generally had to be really good people. They usually had a husband who could behave in a certain way, but it was sort of forgiven. I wanted to put real women onscreen in those roles of mother and wife because it can be damaging to show them as perfect or in control or grown up. It’s not fair for women who have to watch them and think, “Shit, that’s what I should be.”

It’s much more interesting and funny and rewarding for someone to watch someone and go, “I’m not alone. I’m a screwup, and that’s OK.” I don’t think that happened overnight. It’s been a slow shift because more women have begun writing those characters and running those shows, so of course they’re not going to allow an image that puts expectations on women that are impossible to fulfill. I think it’s impossible to go back, and everyone’s grateful that people are being honest in their storytelling and saying it’s OK to be messy. I don’t think you need to treat your audience like they’re [morons].

Were you especially conscious of how mothers were presented on TV before having kids?

SH: No, I wasn’t at all. What I used to write about was women who were just trying to figure their lives out, not settling. [After having children], I thought, “There’s a very interesting world here and difficult situations that are emotional and awful and brutal and all those things.” It felt just as interesting as following some singletons around.

Women’s rights are still being challenged, even in Western cultures, whether it’s the upcoming abortion referendum in Ireland or reproductive debates taking place in U.S. states. Does airing shows like Motherland feel like a kind of resistance?

SH: It’s very worrying and a little depressing that we’re still in that position where we have to fight so hard to have any kind of equality, particularly regarding the abortion referendum and the fact that it’s even seen as a women’s issue and not a human rights issue. Although I don’t specifically get into that sort of thing in [Motherland], it doesn’t mean [it wouldn’t be addressed] at some point in the future or with any other show. It’s absolutely important to go to those places in comedy as in drama. We hopefully put our money where our mouth is when we create shows by women, for women. We deal with it that way, and that’s also important — who you employ and look out for.

Are there any perspectives on motherhood still underrepresented? Any you’d like to see more of?

SH: Oh gosh, that’s a big question. It’s unfortunate for anyone to watch TV and not feel like they’re being represented. It’s not a nice feeling to feel like you’re other. There are so many people who aren’t represented enough, whether it’s single parents or gay families or black families — anyone who isn’t seeing themselves. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but I think it’s important for kids to look at what they’re watching and not just see another white, 2 1/2 kids kind of family, because that’s not where they come from. We can all, and should, be working harder to tell these stories.