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‘Mum’ May Be a Widow, but She’s Certainly Not Alone
July 11, 2017  | By David Hinckley

They say that after the death of a spouse, it’s good to be surrounded with people. They never met the people who surround Cathy Walker.

In Mum, a British series available Tuesday on the new streaming service BritBox, Lesley Manville (top) plays Cathy Walker, who in her late 50s has just lost her husband, David.

She misses him terribly, she admits in the one scene where she gets to tell the truth. She thought she was prepared for life without him, but she wasn’t. There’s no one to make her laugh.

The confession is honest. It does not, however, set the dramatic tone of Mum.

Mum is a comedy because Cathy has to spend almost all her time enduring family and friends who think almost entirely of themselves, making the occasional offhand and often inappropriate gesture of sympathy only if they happen to think of it.

One of the initial challenges for viewers is getting when something is amusing since Mum has no laugh track. Happily, it’s not a difficult realization. Mum is clever, funny and spot-on in its portrayal of boors.

That group includes Cathy’s live-at-home adult son Jason (Sam Swainsbury), who drinks milk out of the bottle.

Jason is soon eclipsed, however, by his new girlfriend Kelly (Lisa McGrillis, right), your classic unfiltered nightmare.

Within two minutes of meeting Cathy for the first time, Kelly offers sympathy because David “took so long to die.”

Later, while making small talk with Cathy, Kelly tells her about her sex life with Jason and offers further sympathy that Cathy isn’t having any sex herself.

As this suggests, Mum gets a little risqué at times, and the occasional four-letter word can be heard.

Still, unlike U.S. sitcoms that can’t seem to find anything else to joke about, sex plays a modest supporting role here.

The primary focus, which will unfold slowly as the 12-episode show moves through a year one month at a time, revolves around the ways Cathy will come to envision the rest of her life.

First, of course, she must navigate past Kelly. And Jason, who makes Cathy unhappy when he announces his plans to move to Australia.

Cathy also has a brother, Derek (Ross Boatman, right), who thinks he has found the woman of his dreams, Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson, right), and can’t see that she’s the girlfriend from hell.

Make that the person from hell. Pauline is an insecure diva who must belittle everyone around her, including Cathy.

Cathy sees that trait from the start but remains almost unfailingly civil because, well, that’s how she was raised.

Pauline makes a splendid mean girl, presenting a whole different etiquette challenge to Cathy from the clueless Kelly.

In any case, a fine performance by Manville shows us all the painful strokes by which Cathy must swim through this sea of molasses.

Cathy is also a character we don’t see much in television comedy. She’s had decades of an apparently happy marriage. Now that’s gone, yet she could live several more decades. Does she start over? How?

The answer to that question, we viewers understand from the very beginning, may lie in Michael (Peter Mullan), an old family friend who provides Cathy’s one ray of genuinely sympathetic and helpful sunshine.

Cathy, who isn’t perfect and isn’t always brilliant, doesn’t immediately grasp the significance of Michael, creating a fresh new twist on TV’s eternal “will they or won’t they?” question.

So perhaps Mum isn’t your mother’s sitcom. Or, wait, perhaps it is.

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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is now available in paperback for under $15. Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. Interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer are high points... Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post


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