Friday, March 27, 2009

ABC Nurtures Another Solid Comedy With "In the Motherhood"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I often complain about the slow death of network sitcoms. But ABC seems to be drifting, ever so slowly, into the comedy abyss. First it brought "Scrubs" over from NBC and paired it with the quirky "Better Off Ted." And now it has come up with a companion to its fairly successful sophomore sitcom "Samantha Who?" with "In the Motherhood" (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern).

Based on a Web series that starred Chelsea Handler and Leah Remini (of "The King of Queens"), "Motherhood" is a good fit with "Samantha," even though the two comedies are focused on two different worlds: Samantha is a single woman trying to refigure out her life after suffering amnesia, while "Motherhood" tracks the lives of three very different moms. Both are female-driven, single-camera comedies that aim for smart humor and hit the mark.

"Motherhood" stars Cheryl Hines (Larry's wife in "Curb Your Enthusiasm") as Jane, a harried single working mother who is trying to keep it all together. When we first meet her, she steps into her house, where bedlam reigns. Jane's baby daughter is screaming, while her preteen daughter walks obliviously by, all while her "manny," Horatio ("Saturday Night Live" alum Horatio Sanz, sporting a full beard and half his former body weight), desperately tries to keep things in check. Jane slowly exits the scene, undetected, and heads for refuge with her younger sister Emily (Jessica St. Clair), the seemingly perfect mother of a young son and daughter, and her irreverent friend Rosemary (Megan Mullally, Karen on "Will & Grace"), who is the least "mom-like" of the three. Although we don't meet Rosemary's teen son in the pilot, the ABC Web page for the show notes that he is the most responsible of all the gang's offspring.

Hines is funny and relatable as the harried Jane, and, most importantly, she refuses to let her become a neurotic cliche. While Jane might panic about her upcoming date with a co-worker (guest Ken Marino, writer of "Role Models" and memorable to some as sleazy private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe on "Veronica Mars," but more recently Tony on "Reaper"), including the prospect of her first sexual encounter in more than a year (she notes that nobody has seen an area she circles with her finger naked for quite some time), she is also smart enough to know that Emily's Miss Perfect veneer is all-too-easy to pierce. When Emily rebukes Jane for lying to her daughter, Jane points out that Emily lied to her kids about the existence of Santa Claus. Painted into a corner, Emily is forced to tell her children that Santa isn't real, leading to a hilarious later scene in which Emily is called to her son's classroom, only to find the teacher on the floor, in the fetal position, as the class runs amok. It seems that he informed his fellow students that their whole world is a series of lies (no Santa, no tooth fairy, no American princesses). The teacher, overwhelmed and in shock, tells Emily, "Your son's a monster." So much for perfection.

The idea that there is no Santa Claus is a great metaphor for the tone of the show. Jane and Rosemary are far from perfect mothers, but the so-called perfect mother among them is, in her own way, no better. When Emily decides to tell her children that there is a Santa Claus, with Horatio playing the part, both Rosemary and Jane take her thunder away by telling the kids first. And, fittingly, it all goes for naught when Horatio crashes to the ground from the roof, with Emily's son saying in horror, "So much blood."

Mullally does a great job with Rosemary, playing her as a middle-class, suburban, toned-down and nicer version of her Karen from "Will & Grace." While Hines gets much of the more subtle comedy moments, Mullally gets the bigger laugh lines, and she knocks them out of the park. In telling Jane that she'll remember how to have sex, she says, "It’s like riding a bicycle, without the seat.” Or when Rosemary confirms that Jane is correct about the rules of a third date, she says, "Even when I was living in the Andes with the Zen masters, third date meant sex. Plus, you got a goat."

Rosemary's story line in the debut was actually quite insightful and a bit edgy, as she is first annoyed and later excited by the way, as she puts it, "The pregnant woman in this society has been elevated to the level of a goddess." It starts when an expectant mother cuts the coffee line (prompting her to say, "No cuts, fatty"), which leads to Rosemary claiming to be pregnant, too, so that she can also get ahead. She decides that "I really want to get a piece of it," so pretty soon she is wearing a stuffed bedbug under her shirt, hanging out with other pregnant women, and reaping all the benefits, like a man buying her coffee.

When Horatio spots Rosemary with the pregnant crowd and finds out what she is doing, he decides he "wants in" and pretends to be a stay-at-home dad (rather than the nanny of Jane's baby). It comes out that Rosemary and Horatio have slept together, and based on the chemistry Sanz and Mullally have together, it's totally believable. They make a great comic team. When they fight over a gift at a shower thrown for Rosemary by the pregnant women, causing the stuffed animal to slip out of Rosemary's shirt and blow their cover, their reactions are priceless. Horatio takes off, pushing the carriage with Jane's daughter like he was in the Indy 500, leaving Rosemary to try and talk her way out of trouble.

Sanz's "Saturday Night Live" training is put to good use in turning his character's sharp comedy lines. When Jane asks him what he is doing the upcoming Friday (she wants him to baby sit), Horatio tells her, "I know you have this whole Angela-Tony 'Who's the Boss?' thing going." She doesn't, of course, but Horatio's character comes off as funny and not creepy, which is a direction it could have easily gone in the wrong hands.

"In the Motherhood" is one of the best new sitcoms to come along in a while, even stronger than "Better Off Ted," which I praised last week. While "Motherhood" is not anywhere near as bizarre as "Ted," the program fits in nicely with ABC's roster of shows that take traditional genres and give them some kind of twist. "In the Motherhood" plays like an answer to the line of perfect-mother sitcoms, from June Cleaver through Carol Brady and Shirley Partridge to Elyse Keaton, showing how motherhood can be as messy as it is rewarding. Rosemary's story line alone, challenging the societal worship of pregnant women, would be enough to send poor June Cleaver running from the room.

But ABC's twist with "In the Motherhood" is subtle, and there is, I think, an opportunity for a larger audience here. I hope the viewers come. Both the network and the show deserve it.