Mother and Son, ABC review: fumbled, jumbled, inoffensive

A central problem hangs over reviving a show like Mother and Son in 2023: what audiences expect from a sitcom has changed.

People often ask why it’s only ever the classics that get remade. Surely the near-misses – the movies and TV series that could have been great but weren’t – should be the ones getting a second chance? But that misses the point of remakes: you remake the greats because they have enough goodwill to get people interested in a new version, even when the idea of a remake is clearly a bad one.

Say hello to the 2023 version of Mother and Son.

Maggie (Denise Scott) is still grieving the loss of her husband and has just set fire to the kitchen, so her newly single son Arthur (Matt Okine) has moved back in to keep an eye on her while he and his sister Robbie (Angela Nica Sullen) try to shuffle her off to an aged-care facility. Suffice to say, she won’t go quietly.

The original Mother and Son was a classic, built around two of the greatest performances in the history of Australian comedy. But times have changed, and comedy has changed with them. For starters, the original had clearly defined characters, sharp dialogue, creators who knew what was funny about the material, and jokes. This version has a charmingly quirky font for the opening credits and some inoffensive camerawork.

Exactly why this this first episode feels so fumbling is a mystery. Isn’t the point of rebooting a classic that you already have a lot of classic material to build on? Despite some solid plotting, interesting character detail (Maggie’s background is much more colourful) and strong performances all around, the pilot episode fails to make any kind of convincing case for its existence, let alone that audiences should return for week two. Which is a shame, as future episodes are sharper – or at least, they know how to get laughs out of the situation.

The original (if they didn’t want comparisons, they should have named it something else) worked in part because it was the final distillation of a long line of Australian family-based sitcoms – think Kingswood Country. It was the pinnacle of a long running trend, the sitcom that perfected the form.

But while Australia’s had family sitcoms in recent years too – mostly ones like Ten’s quasi-Kingswood Country reboot Mr Black and Peter Helliar’s How to Stay Married – there’s nothing to distil from those bland efforts, no essential conflict or insight to hang a comedy on.

So instead of finding the humour in a family situation many Australians currently face, this taps into a long ABC tradition of forgettable sitcoms more interested in style over substance, making sure to get the all-important light drama look right instead of finding ways to make the few visual gags in the script work.

There are moments you can tell are meant to be funny – Maggie drinking what looks like detergent in the laundry, Maggie walking out naked in front of the kids – but the way they’re shot hardly sells the joke at all.

Mother and Son (1984). Image: ABC.

The central problem with bringing Mother and Son into 2023 is that what audiences expect from a sitcom has changed. The original was very much performance-based, with outsized characters able to go theatrically broad while still being plausible as people. This version features characters that are a little more grounded, saying lines that are less pointed and stylised. The tone is understated, and more suited to a dramedy; a premise like ‘two people live in a house and often don’t get along’ needs more of a push.

Or maybe it’s just that the first episode isn’t very well written. The (much better) second episode effectively builds up to an old-fashioned wacky comedy mix up (mum said the grandkids were coming over but nope, it’s a lesbian couple looking for Arthur’s sperm). More importantly, it gets the mother-son dynamic right, with Maggie constantly changing tack and pulling the rug out from under Arthur, leaving him scrabbling to keep up.

When this reboot was first announced, some wondered whether a comedy based around a character who possibly had dementia was appropriate in 2023. At least this version proves there’s plenty of conflict between an old lady who thinks her kids are trying to get one over her and a middle-aged man who just wants to play video games and win back his clearly disinterested ex without bringing medical issues into it.

If only there were a few more laughs along the way.

Mother and Son premieres on 23 August at 8:30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.