Mother & Son

Less punchlines, more diversity in ABC's reimagined comedy classic as it quickly expands on family subplots.

Mother & Son is generally regarded as Australia’s finest sitcom. It was lightning-in-a-bottle synergy with the talents of Ruth Cracknell, Garry McDonald and writer Geoffrey Atherden.

Add to that the fine talents of Henry Szeps and Judy Morris.

Nearly 30 years since it last appeared, it is boldly reimagined by writer / performer Matt Okine with much-loved comedian Denise Scott. Atherden, after many previous approaches, has given the new ABC series his blessing and acted as consultant.

Much has changed since the original. Sitcoms are no longer filmed in multicams with studio audiences, television and viewers’ tastes are far more diverse, comedy is darker and doesn’t feel the pressing urge to drop a punchline every three sentences.

The test for those who revere the original -and I’m one of them- is whether those changes amount to a funnier viewing experience or whether there can be other satisfying pleasures if not. Decades on, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball are still funny, after all. So are Cracknell and McDonald on YouTube and iview (seriously, why is ABC making the original available when it can be readily compared to the new?).

Okine draws on his own experience of a biracial family for the new Maggie Boye and son Arthur, living in western Sydney. In this backstory, widow Maggie married Arthur’s Ghanian father Leo in the 1970s when life was groovy and free-spirited. They ran Leo’s Feel Good African restaurant whilst raising Arthur and his sister, Robbie (Angela Nica Sullen).

But it’s a year since Leo passed and ‘kooky’ Maggie is showing signs of needing care, at least according to the kids. Robbie and Arthur are (ridiculously) offered $1.5m for their rundown, unrenovated home but Maggie, unsurprisingly, is not ready to be uprooted to an aged facility, thanks very much.

“God’s waiting room will have to wait,” she insists.

Arthur has his own challenges. He has split from girlfriend Dee (Andrea Demetriades) and is trying to launch his own website, which appears to be around product reviews. All Maggie wants for him is marriage, grandchildren and running the family restaurant. She may have to set her sights lower, given Arthur is fairly hapless at completing any of his ambitions.

A visit to a care facility doesn’t go so well, in scenes that could have elicited all kinds of physical or mistaken identity schtick and potentially some much-needed cameos with a little more thought.

Robbie’s debut is similarly a missed opportunity. Unlike Henri Szeps’ Robbie, whose very entry into scenes changed the dynamic between characters, Angela Nica Sullen is on the same page as Okine’s Arthur. If she is the ‘golden child’ it will presumably manifest later.

Virginia Gay also appears as Robbie’s same-sex partner, and mother to two children in what is another shake-up from the original series.

It’s great to see Denise Scott in arguably her biggest role since Winners & Losers. She strides through scenes full of nutty bravado and the ability to upstage everybody around her. She’s also given some sharp lines which suggest she’s not losing it anytime soon.

“I’m sorry. In my day trades people didn’t get lip fillers. I guess that’s a win for feminism, right?”

If Maggie has dementia in episode one it isn’t distinct enough from being cranky and flustered, but perhaps the plan is to develop this across the series.

The script also shifts from punchline gags to dramedy, without the sting in traditional sitcom delivery, save for irritable Maggie, and heavily layering family sub-plots.

These are amongst the new choices from Okine, who is clearly a devotee of the original and of his co-star.

The challenge for ABC is whether it has made too many changes from a regarded work and whether lightning can ever be recaptured or reinvented.

Mother & Son screens 8:30pm Wednesdays on ABC.

24 Responses

  1. I agree with some others here. Actually quite watchable and does have promise, but they should have named it something else, maybe with a tagline something like “it’s not just Mother and Son”.

    Also David from pedantic me: article headline sub should start off “Fewer punchlines, …”

  2. I wasn’t going to watch it, but I just heard an interview with Matt Okine about the remake and there sounded enough points of difference to give it a shot.

    The comments here don’t fill me with anticipation, but comedy is the hardest genre – it is all in the eyes of the beholder.

  3. Watching it now on iview, it’s not Mother and Son, there’s no warmth in this show at all, it needs a studio audience or at least a laugh track to tell us when to laugh.

  4. I was curious about this show & approached it with an open mind. Unfortunately, I found it disappointing. I’ve seen Denise Scott in other shows & love her humour. She played her part well but this show is trying too hard to be funny. The person watching the show with me stopped viewing it after about 10 minutes, I watched it till the end but I won’t watch it again. I loved the original of “Mother and Son”, the actors were exceptional, the storylines were great & it’s very hard act to follow.

  5. I was never a fan of the original Mother and Son,as they were trying to be funny all the time but i do like this one.Denise Scott is a great inclusion

  6. I watched it and I didn’t think it was bad at all. First episode and needing to set the scene and re/establish the characters. Too early to tell if it sinks into some sort of maudlin swamp – but I hope not.

    No, it’s not the same as the original, but I don’t think it needs to be – I think I’d be disappointed if the show hadn’t been updated to suit the current day. If this version of Mother and Son was the same as the original, but with different actors, then I may as well just watch the old one.

    I did like what appeared to be a Garry McDonald/Norman Gunston shaving reference in the post credits scene. I’ll give it another go next week.

  7. Like others who commented I was curious and gave it a go.

    It was fine but not memorable or something I would recommend to others.
    I agree- a 3.5 star rating.

    The biggest issue I have is naming it ‘Mother and Son’.
    Surely they could have titled it something else (e.g. My Mum Maggie) and stated it was inspired by ‘Mother and Son’.

  8. I love Denise Scott, and I think she and Matt worked well together but overall this just didn’t click for me. As is often the case this isn’t really a comedy it’s a drama with maybe a few gags in it. Package it as a drama and with a bit of a re-write and it could almost work.

    It was always going to be a tough call to remake or reimagine Mother & Son – esp when you can still watch the original on iview (which I also did last night). Perhaps they should have taken the Prisoner-Wentworth approach, give the show a new name so it’s essentially starting from scratch, but have some sentimental links/references to the original?

  9. I went in with an open mind and found myself laughing out loud throughout. Denise does have big shoes to fill, but from what I watched, I believe she has the feet to do the show proud!! 3.5/5 Stars for me.

    1. Totally agree. It’s astounding just how wrong they got it. In the original Maggie clearly has dementia, but Ruth plays her with a mischievousness that shows she’s (mostly) having fun – which makes it okay to laugh. In the re-make not even Arthur seems unsure if Maggie is losing it, and Maggie spends most of the time moaning and bitching. She seems miserable, which isn’t funny. In the original Arthur is engaged in a Herculean battle to try and have a life while saving Maggie from herself. And his sardonic comments on her misadventures show he sees the funny side. He loses the battle in every episode, but there’s something positively heroic about him. Matt Okine’s Arthur is so bland and relaxed that he saps the comedy and obliterates the heroic struggle. Moreover, the original episodes were superbly crafted not only to deliver laughs but to steadily build the comic tension to a crescendo and a brilliant comic pay-off. The re-make just meanders mirthlessly to no real effect.

  10. Mother and Son has also been re-made in Sweden, Denmark and Turkey. The Scandinavian re-makes were pretty much direct translations, with no huge effort made to re-imagine the characters. They got the laughs in all the same places. You’d think you’d be able to achieve something like the same result with an update for diversity. But apparently not. Oh well…

  11. Some things just shouldn’t be touched. I’ll wait for the public commentary after this airs before risking it. This will either find a new audience or sink badly in a few weeks. Given its Australian content I wish it well, but don’t want to risk the memory of how amazing the original was.

  12. “Less punchlines” is a pretty succinct descriptor for virtually all modern Australian “comedy”.

    What might have worked is a sequel starring Garry McDonald, reprising his original role, as Arthur navigates old age with his millennial/zoomer son or daughter, but knowing producers these days, they would manage to screw that up too.

  13. I was not to sure about a remake being updated with a cross cultural background but….I saw an interview with Matt and Geoffrey Atherden the original creator on YouTube and if he has given his approval for a remake and been gracious about it…..the “OG” as Matt referenced to Geoffrey said he is confident it will be okay….so I will give it a look see and why not…it is Australian made with Australian actors after all.

  14. “Sitcoms are no longer filmed in multicams with studio audiences”

    Not universally, they still exist. Here comes Frasier, again. And every Chuck Lorre vehicle. Changing it to a ‘dramedy’ (ugh) surely takes out the sting and point of the show. It was a dark comedy and every review seems to suggest that Maggie’s use of her memory issues to her own advantage isn’t there which is what it so funny a lot of the time. Disappointing.

    1. Actually it is there. Just down played a bit in episode 1. I feel like ep 1 is used to establish the show to new viewers and establish the “changes” to the old viewers. It picks up from episode 2. I think Denise Scott has moved as far as she can away from Ruth, I think that will be an advantage, as at some stage the comparisons might stop and people may just enjoy the show. But reboots / reimages will never win everyone over, that’s the balancing act with playing with much loved shows.

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