Sharon Horgan is well aware she’s made a cottage industry of mining funny moments from the mundane realities of modern-day relationships.
She created the HBO dramedy Divorce, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as upper-middle-class suburbanites figuring out the intricacies of, well, divorcing. And she co-created and co-stars with comedian Rob Delaney in Catastrophe, Amazon Prime’s frighteningly honest and relatable story about matrimony. But Horgan has gone for the mother load both figuratively and literally with Motherland, the new series she co-created with fellow Irish TV writer Graham Linehan, his wife Helen Linehan, and British comedian Holly Walsh.
Premiering just in time for Mother’s Day in the U.S. on Sundance Now, the Motherland follows Anna Maxwell Martin’s Julia, an event planner who’s so-far managed to have it all because she and her husband have left the day-to-day rearing of their two children to her mother, Marion (Ellie Haddington). When mom abruptly gives notice, it’s Julia—not her husband—whose schedule and workload are thrown out of whack as she attempts to rearrange childcare and school activities. Along the way, she discovers a whole group of women (and one man) who operate this way all the time. Hilarity ensues, mostly at Julia’s expense.
Horgan spoke with Paste about creating comedy out of tragedy, how she feels about typecasting herself and the potential for any crossover episodes with Catastrophe.
Paste: How did you set out to differentiate Motherland from your other shows?
Sharon Horgan: It was easy to make it different because there’s four voices on it, really. [In addition to Julia, there’s Lucy Punch’s alpha mom, Amanda; Paul Ready’s kindhearted, bumbling stay-at-home dad, Kevin; and Diane Morgan’s single mother, Liz]. I knew the tone would be different because Graham has such a different style to me and to Holly. We knew that it would have a different flavor.
And also, I’m not in it. That would help. We didn’t feel it would have those kind of Sharon and Rob shenanigans from Catastrophe. It’s also played so differently. [Catastrophe is] very different from the Motherland—that place where only the people who are around are the people who look after their children. And that’s the only thing that sort of unites them. It was never really about relationships other than the relationships between the women who are friends or who become friends.
Tonally, it felt so differently from Divorce. It’s goofier, I think—a sort of broader comedy.
Paste: Is this set in the same world as Catastrophe? Would Sharon and Rob show up on Motherland?
Horgan: If there is an overlap, it’s kind of by accident. I guess it’s kind of a possibility that those characters could cross worlds and it wouldn’t be too [weird]. But I think my brain would explode if that happened, so I think I’ll go out of my way to make sure that never happens.
Paste: Ha. So you have not created your own Marvel universe.
Horgan: No. Oh my God! No!
It’s weird. I definitely had this idea of having characters who have been in other shows of mine just kind of turn up without any nod to it at all; just another private joke. But I’ve never gotten around to doing it.
Paste: How much of this is based on what you’ve seen or what you’ve experienced in your own life?
Horgan: A great deal of it. And, also, because it’s a writers’ room, it’s everyone’s experience. Graham, being a man, and Helen, his wife, being a full-time mom—even their disagreements on how they saw things fed into it a bit. It was, weirdly, a bit about all of us getting together and off-loading all of these stories that we’ve accumulated over the years. As we talked, we remembered more of the stuff that we felt people could relate to. We knew we wanted it to be as funny as possible, so at times it’s heightened. But we knew all of the stories had to have a firm grip on reality and a firm basis on truth to get the reaction we wanted, which is, “That’s me up there,” or “I’ve been in that scenario; I’ve felt that pain.”
Paste: Julia and her husband aren’t separated, but all of their conversations happen over the phone. Talk about why you wanted to show that.
Horgan: We thought it would be a fun idea. And, really, because of the central idea of it, which is about when they’re not at work, when they’re struggling to make it on time for the pickup. It’s being thrust into these forced friendships sort of circles. We didn’t feel like we had the time or the space or the inclination to get to… what her husband is. We just wanted him to not be there for her, but in the most supportive way possible. He’s not an ogre; he’s a guy who tries to say the right thing and tries to be empathetic without lifting a finger to help. It’s a comedy idea that works because of the main thesis of the show, which is really not showing much beyond their lives as parents.
Paste: Right. He doesn’t seem to have any trouble continuing to live his life outside of his family.
Horgan: No, he manages that just fine. I think we all sort of make choices and, for me personally, I choose not to go away for a spa weekend or to recharge my batteries or do any of those nice things that you probably should do for yourself when you’re a working mom and struggling to say sane.
We’re not saying that her way is the right way or… I mean, we are saying that his way is the wrong way, but there is an element of choice there. I kind of noticed that, in my group of friends who are moms, we damage ourselves as much as our children damage us.
Paste: Are you comfortable with the fact that you’ve typecast yourself as the person who tells these dark comedies about modern families?
Horgan: I do use my life and everything that sort of satellites around my life as material and I do try and be as honest and truthful as possible. It’s slightly addictive when you start writing stories like this and you get the reaction that you get—from women, especially. When women come up to me and thank me—not that I deserve any thanks, it’s a nice job I have—for putting them on screen or for showing those kind of stories that make them feel less mad, I do feel a little beholden to keep telling those stories. But I hope they all have their own kind of differences that it’s not the same thing being rolled out. But I guess there’s kind of an expectation now.
Paste: You’ve also made interesting casting choices with this show. Martin and Ready, for example, have a good deal of stage credits. [Ready] is also on AMC’s The Terror, which could not be more different a show.
Horgan: I think in the past, I’ve had great luck and fortune with dramatic actors—whether they’re theater actors or known for more dramatic roles in film or TV. I’ve just had great luck in casting those [actors] in comedic parts. And now, when I cast any show, that’s the kind of route I go. I love comedy actors and I work with those as well, but when you use somebody who’s predominately known for dramatic work and that’s what they’re used to doing, they bring something that’s unexpected.
We saw a lot of really great women for the Julia role, but when Anna came in it was just slightly [different] choices that were made because she hasn’t gotten used to comedy. She wasn’t doing stuff that you’d seen before. It was a completely new approach to that that comedy character.
At the same time, Diane Morgan, who plays Liz, is primarily known as a comedy performer and we’ve got her doing more dramatic things in it. We got to play around with the unexpected as much as we can.
For a TV comedy, it’s all about the writing and secondly, it’s all about the casting. You can make a show come to life on a whole different level if you just put that little bit of extra work into the casting of it and just go that little bit further.
Motherland premieres Thursday, May 10 on Sundance Now.