The Letdown review – an affecting portrait of motherhood with spoonfuls of comedy

Alison Bell’s bullish but endearing protagonist navigating life with a newborn baby holds ABC’s new comedy-drama together

The director Darren Aronofsky’s biblical allegory, Mother!, with its ferocious heavy-handedness and medieval flailing of star Jennifer Lawrence, might not be the first title that comes to mind in discussion of ABC TV’s new half-hour dramedy The Letdown. They are nevertheless birds of a feather: affecting portraits of motherhood by way of psychological tribulation, treated with deathly, outré seriousness in the case of the former and with spoonfuls of comedy to help the medicine go down in the latter.

To borrow the words of The Letdown’s co-creator, co-writer (with Sarah Scheller) and star Alison Bell, who is best known for her performance in ABC TV series Laid, both stories revolve around women in a heightened state of vulnerability. In the hands of director Trent O’Donnell, who recently helmed Stan’s boffo cop/crime comedy No Activity, story situations may be prosaic and even Seinfeldian (ie finding a carpark or investigating a knockoff pram) but carry dramatic weight, largely because they concern the welfare of a child.

Originally conceived as a pilot for ABC’s Comedy Showroom initiative, and now co-produced by Netflix (which will stream the series globally outside Australia), The Letdown vividly captures the twilight zone period of new parenthood, where life feels Kafkaesque, and a baby-less past, while recent, feels like a totally separate plain of existence, never to return. Bell steers (and steals) the show as new mother Audrey Holloway, who begins attending a parents group moderated by an unsympathetic maternal health nurse (Noni Hazlehurst).

Parents group on The Letdown
A parents’ group, moderated by an unsympathetic maternal health nurse, played by Noni Hazlehurst. Photograph: ABC TV

Audrey craves the usual things: hits of caffeine; a glass of champagne, a rejuvenated social and sex life, the return of some semblance of normality. Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) is her longtime partner who feels helpless around their baby, Stevie. The structure of the series is a little higgledy-piggledy, the writers seemingly uncertain whether episodes should be themed (having a social life in the first, for example, or accommodating in-laws in the second) or focused on other members of the parents’ group.

The protagonist is such a strong, fully-formed character, played bullishly and yet endearingly by Bell, that the focus naturally reverts, as if by gravitational pull, back to her. We enter the world of The Letdown implicitly understanding that we are meeting this character at a very particular time in her life, synonymous with things that might otherwise be exacerbated over the course of a narrative: sleep deprivation; being on the verge of physical and mental collapse; relationship issues; humiliation in various, seemingly infinite ways.

The comedy often involves taking an event or concept hooked to the parental experience then lampooning its place in a wider context, ie via misunderstanding. At a dinner out with friends, Audrey, who has Stevie with her, argues with a mate (Gareth Davies) about the number of glasses of champagne there should be on the table. He says four, not five, which she interprets as insisting she shouldn’t drink while breastfeeding. Audrey cuts off his counter-protests midsentence, forcing him to suddenly exclaim that he just got out of rehab and doesn’t want to fall off the wagon.

Duncan Fellows and Alison Bell
Audrey (right, Alison Bell) with Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) in The Letdown. Photograph: ABC TV

Or there is the first scene in the first episode: a very funny exchange between Audrey, trying to sleep in her car, and a local drug dealer (Patrick Brammall) who objects to her parking in his place of business. He insists on her buying something, even if that means paying for him to help roll the car forward (the going price: $20). It is one of those scenes so compact and effective, and so instantly amusing, it seems to have “viral” written all over it.

The first three episodes (which form the extent of this review) don’t even attempt to maintain that kind of cracking tempo. On the upside, there is space for the characters to breathe and grow, and more time for the drama to resonate. A little too much, in fact: tighter stories, with sharper intersecting plotlines would have given The Letdown a snappier rhythm. When the comedy is a little lacking, however, the drama has its back – and vice versa. The result overall is slight, but utterly endearing.

The Letdown is on ABC TV on Wednesdays at 9.34pm


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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