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.