Family sitcoms, by their very nature, are all about stereotypes. Take one slightly downtrodden homemaker of a mother, add a breadwinning, armchair-loving father, throw in 2.5 kids, sprinkle over some doofus relatives and you’ve got all the ingredients for a mildly slapstick chuckle at everyday suburban life – canned laughter, optional. It’s a tried-and-tested formula; a surefire weeknight-ratings winner. Or, it was, because BAFTA-winning sitcom, Mum, now in its second series, is one of BBC Two’s slowburner hits and it isn’t like this at all. It’s also one of the very few programmes on TV right now celebrating the middle-aged woman, in the loveliest possible way.
At first glance, the show has echoes of 70s sitcom Butterflies – both are about suburban women with love and grief as central themes – but this is 2018, not 1978. While Ria in Butterflies mourned the approach of middle age, Cathy in Mum is quietly mourning the death of her husband and reaching out to old friend, and man with the kindest eyes in the universe, Michael. While Ria fretted over the prospect of an empty nest, Cathy yearns for nice-but-dim son Jason to finally leave home.
What’s so clever about Mum is that Cathy looks like the ultimate sitcom stereotype – she’s a teaching assistant who shops at Per Una, makes country stew with shallots and religiously does her grocery shop on a Thursday. She spends an inordinate amount of time doing the laundry. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and Cathy is portrayed – like Ria and like so many middle-aged female TV characters before her have been portrayed – as the glue of the household. She is cook, cleaner and ironer-of-shirts, roles she embraces to a certain extent – she is “mum”, after all.
Fourth-wave feminism, it seems, hasn’t infiltrated this sitcom suburbia – tradition is tradition, gender roles are gender roles, at a Sunday barbecue the man of the household (in this case, Jason) likes to cook his burgers first, followed by chicken.
And yet, watch closely and you will see there’s so much more to Cathy. She’s no pushover, she’s not afraid to stand up for herself, but she chooses the battles she wants to fight.
Motherhood is part of her, yet it doesn’t define her. She secretly rescues Jason’s childhood cuddly toy after seeing him throw it out (what mother wouldn’t?), but when his blundering girlfriend, Kelly, criticises her choice of jumper, she sticks up for herself in the nicest and firmest way – by gently deflecting the insult back. “I don’t want to get the smell from the bonfire on my normal clothes so I just put on my stupid clothes instead. Same principal [pointing to Kelly’s crazily coloured poncho] as what you’re wearing, really…”
Fourth-wave feminism, it seems, hasn’t infiltrated this sitcom suburbia – at a Sunday barbecue the man of the household likes to cook his burgers first, followed by chicken
Quietly empowering and extraordinary in its ordinariness, Mum is beautiful to watch. In the character of Cathy, writer Stefan Golaszewski dismantles the “woman of a certain age” cliché. There’s no place for the “invisible” middle-aged 60-something, whose family is her whole and only world, who waits for life to come to her.
This is never more apparent than in the blossoming love story between Cathy and Michael. Their painfully shy, “will they, won’t they?”, is so achingly real and awkward it has you yelling at the screen: “Tell her you love her, Michael! Cathy, put that washing basket down and listen to what he’s trying to tell you! Let the others empty the washing machine!”
And this is where the script excels, because the show is so much about what is *not* said, than said. Behind Cathy’s gentle smile and stoic silences, you can see a determination to find her own way and choose a life she wants, not a life her family wants for her. “It’s important to have a fresh start, not have Michael creeping all over you,” says Jason, manfully, as he finally twigs the sexual tension between the couple. In the next scene, in full view of the family, Cathy takes Michael’s hand.
There’s no doubt Cathy knows her own mind. Throughout the series it’s her who challenges Michael about his lack of calls, who pushes him for a “date” at a garden centre, and who, when faced with the prospect of him moving to Spain, finally – note, finally – stops folding sheets to tell him: “I don’t know how or when it happened, it just sort of crept up on me, but I can’t stop thinking about you…”
Will they get together, or will Michael bottle out and ride off into the Spanish sunset alone? The answer to this question is something I feel Golaszewski might want to keep us waiting for (there’s a series three commissioned). So, in the meantime, let us celebrate Cathy – the lovely, ordinary, gentle mum, who knows her own mind, who represents so many middle-aged women out there, but who really, really, really needs to put that washing basket down.