Playing the central mom on “Motherland” (a British sitcom getting its U.S. première on Thursday, on Sundance Now), Anna Maxwell Martin demonstrates a great comedic range of flustered motion. Sometimes the character, an event planner named Julia, herds her two children into her Volvo with a wide-kneed waddle. Sometimes she hustles them through the gates of their London school at a cartoonish skitter. She spends much of the season scrambling for childcare, and all of it scrambling physically. The show, slight but sprightly, proceeds at the pace of her floundering.
“Motherland,” not especially concerned with the actual rearing of children, scarcely casts its eye at scutwork or discipline or the nightly grind of story time. Julia’s kids are not markedly needy, pushy, naughty, obstreperous, or otherwise difficult. They don’t talk back. They barely even talk, and, despite having devoted my frequently cheerful attention to the season’s seven episodes, I couldn’t tell you the name of her five-year-old son. Her nine-year-old, named Ivy, makes a stronger impression: she opens her mouth more often, most notably when, feeling under the weather, she vomits on her bedroom window while her slapdash birthday party awkwardly unfolds in the yard below.
Julia’s current headaches begin when her mother resigns her position as an unpaid babysitter. When her husband, hearing of this departure, suggests that they hire a nanny, Julia balks. “I really want the children to be brought up the way I was—by my mother,” she says to him over the phone, which is their sole means of communication. Husband and wife never appear in the same room, or the same postal code. He’s always away at a work event that resembles a boys’ weekend, or at a stag party that resembles a case study in indolence. From one such idyll, he attempts a pep talk, saying to Julia, “It’s just a case of learning how to juggle everything, and if you drop something I will always be there to pick it up and toss it back to you, so you can just keep on juggling. O.K.?” The line, with its sharp descent from seeming empathy to jaunty callousness, indicates the touch of “Motherland” ’s most prominent creator, Sharon Horgan, whose “Catastrophe” developed snapshots of selfishness in abundance.
You would call Julia manipulative, but the word implies aptitude and cunning, and much of the comedy here extends from the clumsiness of her maneuvering. A typical