By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
"In the Motherhood," an ABC sitcom premiering tonight, is based on a Web series of the same name, but what makes it work is that it's also based on recognizable human behavior -- the warp and woof (and the bow and the wow) of everyday life as lived by three allied moms. Together, they share grievances, experiences and witticisms -- many of them well worth sharing and very well shared.
Long story short: These girls are golden.
"Motherhood's" pluses include an awesome twosome: Cheryl Hines of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" as Jane, a single mom with a job and a male nanny, and Megan Mullally of "Will and Grace" as Jane's friend Rosemary, a wisecracking troublemaker who's too funny for words -- most words, anyway. Mullally was more important to "Will and Grace" than either Will or Grace, or that other guy who was always hanging around.
"Oh, God, I miss being pregnant," Mullally says on the premiere. Why? Because "it makes your legs look so skinny." When she sees the polite deference a pregnant woman receives in the line at the coffee shop, she decides to have a pretend pregnancy of her own. It goes well -- a stranger fetches her a latte -- until a stuffed armadillo falls out of her coat during a tussle over a Blu-Ray player.
Mullally's meticulous timing, and her sardonic approach to the character, make her the most cherishable of the group. But there's one more funny mother involved: Jessica St. Clair as Emily, blond and, well, witchy. This character comes across as less likable than the other two, perhaps because she's depicted as adhering mindlessly to political correctness and also throws nasty tantrums when something ticks her off.
She looks and acts a little like Elizabeth Hasselbeck of "The View." In fact, "In the Motherhood" is sort of "The View" with mommies, and a script. The script -- in fact the first two, since both episodes were available for preview -- is a neatly balanced compilation of character comedy and sociocultural commentary.
The premiere even has a kind of theme -- when to tell the truth and when to substitute the expedient lie. Emily and her husband, determined to bring up their children by the book -- whichever book is currently in vogue -- decide that it's lying to let the kids continue to believe in Santa Claus. Cleaning up this lie results in confusion, hurt feelings and preschool pandemonium.
It's no spoiler to reveal that the Santa story line evolves in such a way as to give Mullally the last word, and the last line, in the episode: "That's not blood; it's Christmas juice." You'll have to be there.
One more sweet surprise on the show: Horatio Sanz, popping back after several years on "Saturday Night Live" and a few so-so movies. Some viewers may not recognize him: Not only has he grown a beard, but he has lost at least 40 pounds. He's also considerably subdued but still comedically proficient. He plays Jane's male nanny -- a "manny" -- who struggles to have a life of his own.
In another of tonight's plot threads, Jane has a date on Friday night, her first in too long a time, and she's very excited about it even though the guy keeps lapsing into Borat impressions ("great sook-sess!") at the office. The sex jokes are bawdy enough that they can't really be repeated here, and yet "Motherhood" is an 8 o'clock "family hour" show. Nobody seems to care much about that any more. Besides, when a show is genuinely funny, who wants to carp about racy references?
As fluidly directed by Richard Shepard, "In the Motherhood" pretty strongly makes the case that the death of the sitcom has been exaggerated. And yet the show (which is taped without a studio audience or a laugh track) doesn't quite have the aura of something that will be welcome in American homes for, say, the next four or five years. Maybe no sitcoms will be able to do that anymore; perhaps it's just one way that television and its viewers have changed.
The thing to do is to enjoy the good shows while they last, however many months or years that may be. "In the Motherhood" deserves a relatively long and reasonably happy life, but so have many other shows that nevertheless didn't get them.
In the Motherhood (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7.