Sam Brooks reviews Mean Mums, the new sitcom from Three that manages to make putting a great show together look easy.
When it premiered as part of Three’s Pilot Week last year, I called Mean Mums the winner of the bunch. Nearly a year later, my enthusiasm for that initial pilot hasn’t dimmed. It was the most straight down the barrel comedy – a genuine fish-out-of-water sitcom with a strong ensemble cast. For the second time in recent history (see The Educators), South Pacific Pictures had taken its considerable resources and glossy house style and rather than applying it to an hour-long drama, had given them to a half hour comedy. And it didn’t just work, it bloody sang.
Now, having watched a few episodes of the series that pilot became, I’m happy to report that Mean Mums makes good on that initial promise. It takes a simple premise – Jess (Morgana O’Reilly) enrolls her five year-old in a fancy new school and finds it a lot more intense than she expected – and mines it for all the universal comedy that comes with feeling like an outcast. It’s a fantastic exemplar of how to do a great sitcom.
First, the premise. Earlier this year, Educators found comedic gold setting their show in a high school, but Mean Mums goes younger, and there’s similar (if lighter-hearted and kinder-souled) humour to be found there. It’s a setting where low stakes situations become comedic high-stakes ones, like when an outbreak of nits is treated as akin to the bubonic plague, or you know, like a current measles outbreak might be.
Even better, it’s a setting that speaks to all of us on a deep, probably thankfully forgotten level. While not all of us went to the kind of fancy-ish, socially-stratified school at the centre of the show, most of us have been to school. And if these first few episodes are any indication, it’s going to go back to wells that are all-too-familiar to a lot of us. Personally, I can’t wait for the inevitable cross country episode.
In my initial review of the pilot, I marveled at how creator Amanda Alison managed to make fun of the world of the show without making fun of the characters within it. That same balance is evident in the series: there’s a feeling that the show genuinely likes all the mums at its centre, and the camaraderie between the three main characters is one of its greatest strengths. It’s still depressingly rare to find a television show that shows the support and strength that women find when thrust together by outside forces. That Alison has managed that, while also squeezing in enough quick-fire punchlines to match Brooklyn Nine Nine, is a rare achievement.
And finally, the cast. Morgana O’Reilly is a savvy choice to hang the show on – she’s effortlessly charismatic, and has a soft, likeable presence that makes Jess’s moments of rebellion and panic hit harder than they might have with someone else. We really feel for Jess when she screws up and sends the patient zero of the nits outbreak right back to class, thanks to O’Reilly brilliantly splitting the difference between heightened sitcom performance and real human freak-out.
She’s supported well by her two fellow leads: Anna Julienne as alpha-mum Heather and Aroha Rawson as the terse but chill Hine. Julienne especially shines here, and absolutely earns all of the punchlines she’s given. She makes sure every one hits for six, and when she’s got lines like “I’m not trying to make you feel guilty but it’s the only way you’ll learn,” and “I hate apologising, it makes it sound like I was wrong”, why wouldn’t she?
Really, all you need for a great sitcom is a killer premise with an almost endless well of ideas, writing that balances the humanity of the characters with a killer joke-per-minute rate, and a cast that can sell it.
And unlike actual parenting, Mean Mums makes it look easy.
Mean Mums is on tonight on Three at 8:35pm, and on demand on Three Now.