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March 29, 2017

I love love love Workin’ Moms

Much like a certain recent US presidential candidate you may recall, the CBC television series Workin’ Moms is not a perfect candidate. There are some obligatory awkward Canadian production moments (Dan Ackroyd notwithstanding; his casting was brilliant); mild implausibility (how do the workin’ moms manage to fit a mommy’s group into their workdays?); and wardrobe decisions I didn’t blink at but that drove my actual workin’ mom friends berserk—apparently sleeves in the office are pretty much de riguere? Who knew. But over the first season of the show it’s become clear to me that perfection was never what the shows creators were striving for. They put a wandering kodiak bear in the pilot, for heaven’s sake. And it was that bear, or rather character Kate’s response to it, that had me hooked, her serious, furious primal scream. In that powerful moment we were witnessing a mother being born.

The show’s frequent comparisons to HBO’s Girls are not amiss in that neither is a series about women in general, which keeps tripping viewers up “because we’re still more comfortable seeing women as universal types rather than distinct individuals.” If women in general get this treatment, then mothers get it doubly, and the creators of Workin’ Moms are actively working against those expectations of who mothers are and what they should be. In fact, they’re working against all expectations, hence the kodiak bear.

From the start, here is what I loved about the series: first, that the characters aren’t foils. They’re people. That they aren’t having existential crises about matters most people really do manage to work out in reality if not on TV—like, “Oh my god, can I be a mom AND a person?” “Is it okay that I really like my job more than I like taking care of my baby?” “Is it simply inexcusable to admit that I find devoting my entire self to motherhood is more than a bit unfulfilling?” I mean, these are questions the characters in the show are working through, but it’s the process that matters—it’s not as though entire plot points hang upon them. I also like that the workin’ moms’ partners (who are dads, but for one exception) are generally decent human beings. Making dads look dumb is really stupid comedy, and this show is much too smart for that.

I knew I loved the show in the first episode when Frankie started fantasizing about being hit by a bus. She doesn’t want to die, she explains, but how she’d love to go into a coma for eight weeks or so. Later we see her with her head stuck under water in the house she’s showing for a sale. Soon after, she kinda sorta slips under water in the bathtub with her baby daughter—only just caught by her partner. She’s fallen asleep, she claims. A tiny slip. Enough to make the viewer very uncomfortable, which the series never fears to do.

Another character whose trajectory messed me up was Jenny, who headed back to her IT job reluctantly while her husband embraced his time as a stay-at-home dad, and thereby became completely unappealing to her, sexually and otherwise. She starts having weird fantasies about her nerdy manager, and leaving provocative messages on his Facebook page. Alienated from her roles as mother and wife, she starts acting out in outlandish ways, most memorably on the girls’ night out when she demands someone pierce her nipple, which squirts milk at the moment of laceration. Predictably, the nipple gets infected.

I loved Anne, who’s struggling with her older daughter (oh my gosh, when she starts wondering if there’s a slut gene and she’s passed it onto her) and a young baby when she realizes she’s pregnant again. This accidental pregnancy does not come as good news, and she struggles with facing it in her characteristically blunt style—”You’re angrier than usual, Anne,” the leader of the mommies group remarks to her. The group in general in general is a bit put off by the fact that Anne keeps bringing up that she’s considering an abortion. Which is kind of sacrilege in a room full of babies.

And then yes, the abortion. It’s long been a complaint of mine not just that abortions aren’t shown on TV very often, but particularly that nobody ever gets to make jokes about them. (I actually have a long term aspiration to become an abortion humorist.)  Workin’ Moms going against the grain again as Anne’s friend Kate (who’s played by show creator Catherine Reitman) cracks this one as she’s driving Anne to a clinic and they’re considering whether you’d Yelp an abortion clinic based on ratings or proximity. Ratings, definitely, Kate figures, and then she takes it further: “I wonder what kinds of complaints an abortion clinic gets? One star. Still pregnant.”

And Kate, my favourite. All life in the city—she’s glorying in the beauty of the day in the park with her son as a vagrants’ pissing against a tree. Sardonic, bad-assed and unapologetic—particularly about her lack of sleeves. Her story throughout the series involves her return to work at a PR firm where she’s firmly established as successful, but she finds she has to redefine her professional role at work now that she’s a mother. Further, she’s a candidate for a prestigious position in Montreal, which would involve leaving her husband and son for three months. Is this something she’s willing to partake in for professional success? (Spoiler: in Tuesday’s episode we see her glorying in her clean white bed, alone, a full night’s sleep, and not a single soul to breastfeed. As any mother knows, there’s not drug in the world as incredible as solitude—but it’s also possible to get too much of a good thing.)

At the beginning of the show in January, Workin’ Moms received a terrible review from John Doyle in the Globe and Mail who chastised the show for its characters’ entitlement. “Oddly, to me, Workin’ Moms celebrates what was mocked with deft scorn by the Baroness Von Sketch series and the Canadian comedy Sunnyside. So, whose side are we supposed to be on? If it’s these appallingly smug people, heaven help us all.” But what the review only proves is that John Doyle doesn’t get it—it’s never been about sides. And what’s remarkable about Baroness Von Sketch and Workin’ Moms alike is that nobody is pitted against no one. Not unless, of course, there’s a very good reason…

In her celebration of Baroness Von Sketch, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer writes of how the show “celebrates and spoofs the mundane realities in which modern, urban women find themselves depicted. And oh, how the Baronesses know the contours of the boxes in which we live. They have it mapped out like diligent and transgressive draughtswomen who, instead of yielding to the airtight edges of their inherited designs, work to erase them.” And I would argue that Workin’ Moms is a similar kind of project. More subtly though—this isn’t sketch comedy after all. And because it isn’t, the show has to develop in-depth female characters with sustained narratives, and some people hate that. Remember that flawed candidate I started this post with?

Workin’ Moms isn’t perfect, but it never wanted to be—which is the reason it manages to be transgressive, hilarious and discomforting all at once. And it doesn’t fucking care if you don’t like it, which is why I loved it.

The series finale airs next week, but you can watch the whole thing online.

4 thoughts on “I love love love Workin’ Moms”

  1. Katy B says:

    Really enjoyed reading this!

  2. melanie says:

    I’ve been wanting to watch this show for a while and I’m so glad you talked/wrote about it.

  3. Maia says:

    I checked out the first couple of episodes thanks to your recommendation here and appreciated them far more than I think I would had I not read your post. So good!
    P.S. I was watching with headphones on, and kept disturbing my poor, late-working husband with my guffawing…

    1. Kerry says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!! And yes, it made me lol a lot too…

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