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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Motherhood' is too nice for its own good

From left: Megan Mullally, Jessica St. Clair, and Cheryl Hines in ABC's ''In the Motherhood.'' From left: Megan Mullally, Jessica St. Clair, and Cheryl Hines in ABC's ''In the Motherhood.'' (Danny Feld)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 26, 2009
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Megan Mullally makes callousness into a fine art. As Karen on "Will & Grace," and now as Rosemary on "In the Motherhood," she pitches insults with an expert drop curve. Her snipes begin as straight-ahead affronts, before veering down into disdain, mild pity, and indifference. One minute she's scrutinizing a face; the next, she's looking right through it. Mullally is among the few comedians I can imagine having played the ferociously self-interested Elaine on "Seinfeld," other than Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

On "In the Motherhood," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 5, Mullally is in fine form, without Karen's shrill voice but with plenty of shoulder-shrugging attitude. I knew I'd love her on this single-camera comedy when Rosemary spontaneously decides to fake being pregnant so she can cut in line at the coffee shop. On a series that obsessively exalts the trials of being an upper-middle-class mother, Mullally brings on a welcome bit of subversion.

Very welcome, really. "In the Motherhood" is an otherwise disappointing network adaptation of a spikier Web series starring Chelsea Handler, Jenny McCarthy, and Leah Remini. The ABC show, which costars Cheryl Hines and Jessica St. Clair as Mullally's buddies, seems overly concerned with appealing to - and not offending - a particular demographic. It's as if the writers' first goal is to grab a viewing audience of young mothers by staging a familiar litany of domestic problems; being funny is more like an afterthought. It's marketing as creative compass.

Hines, from "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is Jane, the newly divorced mother of a preteen and an 8-month-old. Jane has a demanding job and a "manny," played by Horatio Sanz, who holds the homestead together. In one of the two episodes provided by ABC, Jane learns that vacation is harder than work, when baby-sitting becomes more than she can handle. The plot is extremely predictable, and it devolves into inane sitcom filler when Jane accidentally locks herself out of the house and tries to break back in to get to her infant daughter. (A "Lost" plug doesn't make the scenario any more entertaining.) The fleeting moment when Sanz is debating when "Dora the Explorer" jumped the shark is a little more amusing.

Hines plays the straight character on the show, as she has on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." She means well but gets into crazy pickles, including an illicit affair at work. As her self-righteous, politically correct younger sister, Emily, St. Clair has a little more fun. Emily is a parody of those parents who pretend everything in their home is perfect. But St. Clair's moments barely register - she was more of a kick as Tara's short-term friend on "United States of Tara" - and the writers need to up the absurdity level of Emily, make her more twisted and less wan. St. Clair can handle it, I'm sure.

"In the Motherhood" is prettier and nicer than its fast-paced Web predecessor, which once had a kid poop in a department-store display toilet. To stand out from the pablum of domestic sitcoms, the series needs to lose the working-mom cliches and be more willing to be mean. As Louis-Dreyfus proves on "The New Adventures of Old Christine," bitterness can be a very good time.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

IN THE MOTHERHOOD Starring: Cheryl Hines, Megan Mullally, Jessica St. Clair, Horatio Sanz

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 8-8:30

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