That Ricky Gervais has got a lot to answer for. Since the advent of The Office, “cringe comedy” seems to be the order of the day on BBC TWO at 10:00 pm. This is the sort of comedy that you feel uncomfortable watching and sometimes just want it to end. The latest entry into this ever-increasing subgenre is Motherland.
We first met fraught mother Julia (played marvellously by Anna Maxwell Martin) in last year’s sitcom season (which we reviewed here). That season produced two (nearly) new sitcoms; the reboot of Porridge for BBC ONE and Motherland for BBC TWO. The series has an excellent writing pedigree being created by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), Graham and Helen Linehan (The IT Crowd) and Holly Walsh (Mock the Week). The whole situation is so awkward as Julia is full of anxieties about whether she is being a good mother or not. (Answer: she is doing the best she can. Can you tell I got that one from Mumsnet?)
Dianne Morgan (best known as Philomena Cunk) has the funniest lines and is the perfect foil as the streetwise mum who knows all the tricks of the parenting game. Over the course of the series Paul Ready’s character Kevin comes into his own as the emasculated Kevin, although at times he did seem to be channeling Frank Spencer (for anyone under 40, click here). Lucy Punch plays the trios nemesis, the wonderfully bitchy alpha mum Amanda. Perhaps initially a little light on belly laughs, the series grows and and it obviously comes from very real experiences of being a parent.
Episode one opened with Julia holding a party in the hope that her daughter would get invited to reciprocal parties and solve her childcare issues. There were some great set pieces; the Minion cake which would have gone down a storm on Extra Slice and the animal entertainer who only had cats. (You could imagine Peter Kay playing that character, but then it would be prime time BBC ONE.) For me, the real charm came from watching the background; two of the best gags involving a child being sick and a traffic warden (not together) unfold in the background. The whole series is on iPlayer now, but I think I may have to take a couple of sedatives before I watch it as I found myself becoming as anxious as Julia whilst watching it first time round.
There is nothing anxious happening in Detectorists (not The Detectorists…just Detectorist). In fact there isn’t much happening at all; but that, again, is its charm. On paper, a sitcom about two members of a metal detecting club doesn’t sound like a winner, but it’s strangely compulsive viewing. To call it gentle is an understatement; it feels a bit Last of the Summer Wine at times (no one goes down a hill in a tin bath, but there is a lot of a couple of friends silently walking in the countryside), and people seem to like it as it is now into its third series.
If the comedy in Motherland comes from the situation, then comedy in Detectorists comes from the characters. If you came across most of the characters in real life, you would give them all a wide berth, except for Sheila (played by Sophie Thomson) who is comedy gold. The way this group of tragic individuals interact with each other is wonderful. Again, as in Motherland, awkward is the key word. And pauses. Long, pregnant pauses. When I was watching W1A the other week I became obsessed with counting words. Around 70% of the lines delivered are nine words or less (super, great, very strong). If you don’t believe me go back and check, it’s still on iPlayer. Detectorists also has that feel. It seems to be left up to Toby Jones to deliver any long monologues (if you look at the script of episode one from series one, he has one that is nearly four lines long. It’s on page 10). One lovely feature of the show are the cut-away scenes where we see what happened centuries ago on the very land that they are searching and we know that they are always just a few feet from buried treasure. As I say, tragic.
Thinking about it, Motherland and Detectorists work together well as a double bill, one stressful and fraught, the other relaxing and calming. Both funny, but in different ways. The question is which way around should I watch them?