Modern motherhood: it’s not a pretty picture. For decades, women in domestic comedies were happy homemakers. They smiled and baked and looked as though they might tackle some light dusting. They were automatically available for their children. June Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver), Margaret Anderson (Father Knows Best), Harriet Nelson (The Nelsons), Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show), Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch), etc.
Now a couple of standout comedies have smashed any remaining shreds of the stereotype of mothers as calm, wise and composed, the rock-solid foundations of family life. That glowing, impossible image has been trashed and the shift is welcome and wonderfully liberating.
On the locally produced gem The Letdown (Wednesdays, ABC, 9pm and iview) and the audacious, continually surprising Better Things (all three seasons available on Foxtel On Demand), we see women in all their multi-dimensional messiness. They’re struggling and not always succeeding, making mistakes and grappling with all manner of body issues, from prolapsed uteruses and dry vaginas to problematic sex drive, either a lack or an excess. Their worlds are places of barely contained chaos.
These are raw, ruthlessly honest, intimate and knowing representations of motherhood, and they’re shaped by the kind of insight that comes from direct experience. Both comedies are created, driven and overseen by women: The Letdown by Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell, and Better Things by Pamela Adlon. And they offer the kind of sometimes-unflattering perspective that is only tolerated when it comes from within the tribe that it is portraying.
The shows are a tonic at a time of endless advice and a particular brand of mommy bloggers, with their barrage of carefully curated images of fantastical perfection. Women are readily susceptible to suggestions that they can do better, can be better, and it tortures and traumatises us, as it certainly does poor Audrey (Bell) in The Letdown.
As the recently launched second season begins, a year on from the first one, she’s preparing for her daughter’s first birthday party, an occasion that brings together the members of the parents’ group overseen by infant welfare nurse Ambrose (a magnificent Noni Hazlehurst) in the show’s opening season. It also brings stress and the pressure of expectations for the frazzled Audrey.
With its wonderfully ambiguous title, The Letdown captures the competitiveness and the camaraderie that can exist between women. Sophie (Lucy Durack) had proper cutlery and a unicorn - well, a pony with a horn - at her child’s celebration, Audrey wails as she toils into the wee hours, churning out inedible, sugar-free chocolate crackles and a novelty birthday cake that ends up looking obscene.
Husband Jeremy (Duncan Fellows), trying to be supportive, is mystified by her behaviour while her mother, Verity (Sarah Peirse), is baffled and mildly critical. Hilarious, spot-on and right out-of-sync with the times and the reigning priorities is Verity’s remark that, for first birthdays when Audrey was little, parents would just re-wrap a toy that the infant already owned, because they were too young to know the difference and would be perfectly happy simply to rip up the shiny paper.
But times have changed and Scheller and Bell capture the tyranny of expectations, not only for Audrey, but also for the array of characters from the parents’ group. There’s Martha (Leah Vandenberg), a lesbian who had her child with a sperm donor and hasn’t yet come-out to her family; Ester (Sacha Horler), a career woman and breadwinner who’s ceded daily parenting responsibilities to her diligent husband, Ruben (Leon Ford); camera-ready Sophie, obsessively researching best-practice parenting, concerned with doing the right thing and keeping up appearances, who’s had to suffer the humiliation of bladder leakage; Barbara (Celeste Barber), who’s not at all concerned with appearances as she wrangles her third child. Each of them is depicted with humour, an astute eye and empathy.
As the new season unfolds, they’re getting back to work, considering a sibling for their infants, venturing into online dating and seeking out scarce and expensive childcare.
If there’s an indelible idealised image of motherhood, it comes from the American sitcom Leave it to Beaver (1957-63), with the aforementioned impossibly serene and sensible June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley). She spent her days at home with perfectly coiffed hair. She wore heels, pearls and a dainty little apron. She could be relied upon to offer anyone in the house freshly baked cookies before presenting a pot-roast for dinner.
Even though she’ll bake a cake for Easter and decorate festive baskets for her family, Sam (Adlon) in Better Things is a chaotic, volatile and loving single mother of three, and a universe away from Mrs Cleaver. A working actress in a decidedly unglamorous depiction of Hollywood, Sam starts the show’s recent third season discovering that she’s outgrown just about everything in her wardrobe. Then she takes a rites-of-passage trip to Chicago with her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), who’s leaving home in California and starting college. The proud, tearful mother dutifully stocks her beloved baby up with sanitary products, contraceptives and ramen.
She’s the kind of mother who attends a school science fair with her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward), and gets into fights with other parents as her mortified child looks on. She has a big heart and a loud mouth. Yet a potent acuity and humanity underpin Adlon’s show, with its gloriously tumultuous depiction of family life.
Sam’s brother, Marion (Kevin Pollack), gets it right when he explains to a fretful Duke about her mother: “She’s crazy and a complete pain in the arse and annoying, but she loves you and she will do anything for you. And the most important thing in the world, the most important thing, is that she’s there . . . When you need her, she’s there. When you don’t need her, she’s there . . . She’ll always be there and that is all that matters.”
Pearls and dainty aprons be damned.