BARNHART

Workin' Moms Mines Motherhood for Laughs

Catherine Reitman created and stars in this biting Netflix comedy about the burdens of motherhood.
  • Kate (series creator and star Catherine Reitman) finds a moment to herself in Workin’ Moms. (CBC/Netflix)
    Kate (series creator and star Catherine Reitman) finds a moment to herself in Workin’ Moms. (CBC/Netflix)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Twice weekly on Primetimer.

    Workin’ Moms
    Watch Season 1 on Netflix
    Season 2 drops July 25

    Workin’ Moms wasn’t on my radar until I began reading reviews by some of the critics who hate it.

    This comedy about four friends who belong to the same mommy group debuted in Canada in 2017 and began airing in the U.S. on Netflix earlier this year. One of a growing number of comedies written by women, Workin’ Moms has a fresh, sardonic voice rarely heard on male-driven sitcoms. Created by and starring Catherine Reitman, Workin’ Moms takes the most infuriating aspects of modern motherhood and mines them for laughs. 

    Jenny (Jessalyn Wanlim), Anne (Dani Kind), Kate (Catherine Reitman, who created Workin’ Moms), and Frankie (Juno Rinaldi) at their weekly mommy group in <i>Workin' Moms</i> (CBC/Netflix)

    Having to breast-pump in the ladies’ room. Feeling sexual urges at inappropriate times. Clawing back your accounts from coworkers who took them while you were gone. Coming home to an allegedly supportive partner who expects you to do the cooking and cleaning.

    Reitman plays Kate Foster, a high-powered ad executive in Toronto, who gets a rude awakening her first day back — a man was hired to do her job while she was on leave.

    “Can’t tell you how strange it is to get pregnant at the top of my game,” Kate says nervously.

    The man smiles coolly. “Yeah, the only thing that would keep me out of these offices is a fire,” he says, not realizing he’s just lit one under Kate.

    Over the course of her first full day back, she will pump breast milk in a bathroom stall, spill said milk on an important document, break a pledge to get home at a reasonable hour, win an account with a Don Draper-quality pitch, and take crap from her husband, who doesn’t seem like the 50/50 baby-raising kind of guy.

    <i>Just another day at the office for Kate (Catherine Reitman) in Workin’ Moms. (CBC/Netflix)</i>

    Somehow in all this, Kate manages to escape for lunch with fellow mom-grouper Anne (Dani Kind), a work-at-home psychologist whose brutal reactions makes those around her cringe. To a screaming child who passes their table she yells, “Shut it, you monster! Your mother’s a goddamn angel!”

    And that’s how she talks to strangers. Here is how she settles one of her epic battles with Alice, her nine-year-old, who has clearly inherited her mother’s fierceness.

    “Listen up, Alice! I am an adult. I pay taxes and do laundry and watch you do ballet. You are just a child who doesn’t understand how dumb she’s being right now. You keep this up and I may never let you go back to school.”

    “But mom, how would I learn?”

    “I don’t know! Sounds pretty risky, doesn’t it? Now go to your room before I ruin your entire future!”

    Pretty risky is also a good way to describe Workin’ Moms whenever the show veers away from the punchlines and bawdy hijinks into more serious matters. When, during mommy group, Jenny (Jessalyn Wanlim) confesses that she’d rather stay home with her baby than return to her mind-numbing cubicle job, the other three look horrified. On the flip side, though, Kate is gone from home so much that her baby now prefers his milk from a bottle. Later, Frankie (Juno Rinaldi), the fourth mom, tries to drown herself, the first of several suicide attempts the show melodramatically explores over the first season.

    <i>Nothing is off-limits, as Anne (Dani Kind) demonstrates on Workin’ Moms (CBC/Netflix)</i>

    At its core Workin’ Moms is about the costs, burdens, and absurdities of motherhood, and not so much about its joys. To fans of the show, these characters are endearing because they say what viewers feel they could never say (except on some anonymous board) and go through ordeals that are unique to women returning to the working world after giving birth.

    To others, the moms’ singular focus on their careers and adult relationships reflects a narcissistic First World mindset that they don't find entertaining in the least.

    As the Daily Dot’s Caitlin Moore put it, “Workin’ Moms has privilege oozing out of its every orifice.”

    “The most obvious and glaring problem with Workin’ Moms is the privilege of its main characters, which is blinding, exhausting, and all-encompassing,” agreed Slate’s Sarah Jaffe.

    John Doyle, the Globe and Mail’s critic, said Workin’ Moms “just reeks of entitlement and requests us to have sympathy for elites.”

    The show’s privilege problem, Moore explains, emanates from the fact that “all of its characters live in beautifully decorated single-family homes in Toronto, one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America. They have places at work to pump breast milk and can easily afford nannies … It’s hard to sympathize with them when there are mothers out there struggling to feed their children.”

    Maybe my own privilege is showing here, but it never would have occurred to me to compare a group of imaginary moms played by telegenic actors to actual working mothers, any more than I would compare the ensembles of Friends or Seinfeld to real New Yorkers.

    <i>Anne (Dani Kind) gets into a staring contest with her nine-year-old Alice (Sadie Munroe) on Workin’ Moms  (CBC/Netflix)</i>

    Anyway, there’s no need to fight over this, because Netflix also bought a show about new moms who live more downmarket lives. It’s The Letdown from Australia, and I’m reviewing it next.

    Assuming, though, you can get past the P-word, and don’t mind jokes about the C-word, Workin’ Moms does a pretty good job of using comedy to call attention to one of the most persistent social evils of our time — the fact that even in societies ostensibly devoted to the equality of the sexes, mothers are still the ones expected to turn their lives upside down when a child is born.

    And if Reitman strikes her critics as entirely too comfortable with her world of high-paying jobs and nannies, at least she came by it honestly. Her father, Ivan Reitman, directed comedy blockbusters like Ghostbusters, Twins, Meatballs, and Stripes (In one scene, Kate wears a Stripes T-shirt to bed), so she grew up privileged. She also grew up funny.

    Pressed for time? Watch the first five episodes of Workin’ Moms. That will be enough to introduce all the regular and recurring characters and give you a chance to sample some storylines.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Sign up to get all his Primetimer reviews at tvbarn.com.

    TOPICS: Workin' Moms, CBC, Netflix, Catherine Reitman, Ivan Reitman