Reviews, Screen, TV

The Letdown review (ABC TV): finding the funny in motherhood

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The ABC’s Comedy Showroom season of new Australian pilots has proven to be a worthwhile exercise, with two of the six programs picked up by the public broadcaster and turned into full series.

The first was the ABC-Comedy Central co-production of Ronny Chieng: International Studentand now Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell’s motherhood comedy The Letdown is set to premiere a seven-episode season. The series already has some significant kudos to its name: Scheller and Bell won last year’s AACTA Award for Best Screenplay in Television for the pilot.

The Letdown focuses on Audrey (also played by Bell), a brand new mother struggling with all of the things brand new mothers struggle with: the constant exhaustion from late nights, the need to be the best mother she possibly can be, and the inevitable transformation in her sense of identity.

The first episode is a version of the pilot that originally aired last year, with some slightly different editing and one significant character re-cast; Audrey’s partner Jeremy was played by Ewen Leslie in the pilot, and is now played by Duncan Fellows.

When I first watched the pilot last year, I felt that it didn’t say much that was new about motherhood. But I’m not necessarily the best person to make that judgement; you’d be hard pressed to find somebody with less of an understanding of what it is to parent a baby than I have.

What’s clear from the first episode is that it manages to capture the sense of isolation, fear and guilt that can come with parenthood, with strong impact.

At the start of the pilot, Audrey decides to join a mothers group, overseen by the imperious leader Ambrose (Noni Hazlehurst). Ambrose has a tough love approach to all these new parents: an eclectic group of mothers, and one father, who talk about their parenting strategies and offer both support and judgement in equal measure.

Audrey makes a few simple faux pas and decides she doesn’t need the mothers’ group, but her experiences over the course of the pilot make it clear that she needs the support of people whose experiences she can relate to.

The time between that initial pilot episode and the production of the full series has clearly allowed the writers to develop the writing and sharpen its focus. There are still some cliches in there about motherhood — and the need to keep up appearances that all is going to plan — but it broadens out nicely, tackling various different aspects of parenting.

We get to meet more of the characters from the parents’ group over the course of the series, and understand their conflicts and challenges, including one mother trying to negotiate a relationship with her sperm donor.

The characters are nicely drawn and the screenplay is brightly funny, but the performances elevate the material significantly.

It’s one of the best casts seen in an Australian TV comedy in recent years, led by Bell, who manages to make her exhausted, defeated and sometimes cynical character entirely three-dimensional and endearing.

With supporting actors such as Noni Hazlehurst, Sarah Peirse, Lucy Durack, Sacha Horler and Leah Vandenberg all delivering fine performances, The Letdown is well worth a look, even if you have little interest in the trials and tribulations of modern motherhood.

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[box]The Letdown premieres on ABC TV on Wednesday October 25 at 9.30pm[/box]

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