This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11 November 2017.
DETECTORISTS: Wednesday, BBC Four
MOTHERLAND: Tuesday, BBC Two
When DETECTORISTS rambles off forever in a few weeks time, it’ll be like saying goodbye to dear old friends.
Fans of this beloved cult sitcom will understand my bittersweet conflict when it returned for a third and final series last week. Lovely to have it back, but I don’t want it to end.
Mackenzie Crook, who writes, directs and co-stars, should be applauded for creating a charming little fictional universe which, for all its underlying melancholy, offers sun-dappled respite from the escalating madness of our brutal world.
If you’ve somehow committed the baffling error of never having watched it, a swift precis. Laconic Andy (Crook) and fastidious Lance (Toby Jones) are best friends and metal detector enthusiasts based in picturesque rural Essex. The defining image of the series is the pair of them gently trawling a large field in search of life-changing treasure. They never give up.
The pace is leisurely and comforting. The character-driven humour is droll, humane and prickled with glimmers of absurdity (Andy and Lance’s buffoonish rivals resemble Simon and Garfunkel). Our endearing duo chat about their quietly complicated lives while detecting or over a pint in the local pub. A winning cast of mildly eccentric supporting characters mill around them amiably.
On the soundtrack, haunting English folk music awakens aeons of ghosts from this green and pleasant land (the latest episode even paid explicit homage to M.R. James’ classic ghost story Whistle And I’ll Come to You).
That, in essence, is all there is to it. And yet Crook, without strain or pretension, conjures a bewitching spell from this simple template. Detectorists is gentle but never bland, poignant but never saccharine. Lance, Andy and co are fully-rounded, funny characters. It’s been a pleasure spending time with them.
The final hurdle is a solar energy farm being built on their beloved terrain. Their shell-shocked expressions when they heard the news spoke volumes. It was as if they’d been bereaved. That field is an escape hatch, an oasis of calm and enrichment. What will they do without it?
Crook, I suspect, knows we feel the same way about his unique creation.
A new sitcom from Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh, Graham Linehan and his wife Helen, MOTHERLAND is the cold metropolitan yin to Detectorists’ warm bucolic yang. It’s ruthlessly engineered to make parenthood look like an unbearable waking nightmare, especially if you’re comfortably middle-class and white.
I’m all for downbeat comedy when done well, but Motherland is so clinically intent on exploring this subject without a shred of sentiment, it ends up coming across as faintly depressing. Outnumbered, which covered similar territory, was never sentimental either, but it was full of wit and charm. Motherland is a migraine.
Linehan, Horgan and Walsh have all written good, sharp, funny sitcoms in the past – their collective credits include Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Pulling, Catastrophe and the underrated Dead Boss – but this joint effort is surprisingly dull and unlikeable.
It revolves around an aggravating central performance from Anna Maxwell-Martin – an actor whose work I’ve enjoyed elsewhere - as Julia, a permanently stressed and angry mother of two young children. You don’t always have to sympathise with sitcom characters to find them funny, but Julia’s clenched cynicism and intense exhaustion are exhausting to watch.
Episode one lumbered her with that hoary old sitcom standby, the disastrous children’s birthday party. A tiresome volume of awkwardness ensued. There’s something quite self-satisfied about the way in which Motherland digs viewers in the ribs with its pedestrian first-world observations. It’s like eavesdropping on a group of parents moaning about their fundamentally privileged lives. The smugness is unbearable.
That wouldn’t matter so much if the gag-rate was higher, but Motherland is unforgivably sparse on that front.
The only enjoyable aspect is the deadpan performance by Diane Morgan (aka Screen Wipe’s Philomena Cunk) as Julia’s best friend. She provides a few wry smiles. It's a chilly disappointment otherwise.