I never thought I’d say this, but CBC-TV is on a roll. It began in 2015, with the debut of Schitt’s Creek, a quietly amusing sitcom by Canadian Jewish father-son duo Eugene and Dan Levy. In 2016, CBC introduced Kim’s Convenience, a fluffy story of Korean shopkeepers that has proven to be, if not gut-busting comedy, at least a cute, polished family comedy pushing minority representation across the country.
Then came 2017, when Workin’ Moms walked in the door, and elevated CBC-TV to a whole other level.
Unlike its saturated siblings, Workin’ Moms adopts a sharper tone, mixing adult themes with blunt swears. Showrunner and star Catherine Reitman has created a firmly 21st-century feminist series on par with other great contemporary, women-led televised series, down to the main character baring her breasts in the pilot episode. (My wife pointed out this bizarre trend to me: the leads of Girls, Orange is the New Black, GLOW and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel all appear shirtless, not throughout the series, but pointedly in the pilot, as if complying with some unspoken rite of passage.)
Workin’ Moms wrapped its third season this month, weeks after launching internationally on Netflix. The reviews are not unanimous, but if early American responses are any indication, the show cements a new benchmark for Canadian television. Finally, we’re done pretending the best we can do is Mr. D.
“Never before have I related more to a show,” gushed Lindsey Benoit O’Connell of Good Housekeeping. Variety reports the show enjoyed a 20 per cent higher audience retention rate in 2019 than the average CBC series, and in October 2018, it was nominated for best comedy series at the International Emmy Awards in New York City (though it lost to an Israeli series, Nevsu).
Workin’ Moms works because it’s fun and complex, building storylines that blossom into realistic, sometimes tragic finales. The first season is unfortunately inconsistent, but one of the brightest plots focuses on Anne, a mother of two struggling over whether she can justify getting an abortion. There’s an implicit blow against ageist conventions that dictate such plotlines usually be reserved for unprepared teenagers; the show handles the issue with nuance and emotion, as Anne weighs her moral responsibilities against the practical terror of looming debt and her own selfish desire to get back to work.
The harshest criticism, from disappointed reviewers in the Globe and Mail and Slate, focuses on the moms’ privilege: most are white, all have well-paying jobs and, aside from the abortion plotline, the show largely ignores the political and financial realities of raising a kid in downtown Toronto. I’d argue that viewers who insist their pop culture strictly mirrors reality may also scoff when Reitman’s character fends off a bear by yelling at it, or when she takes too many hallucinogenic mushrooms and accidentally pitches the same lame ad campaign to two clients, both of whom gleefully love it. Disliking a show because it is not the show you want it to be does not make it a bad show.
Besides, this appears to be one of those sitcoms critics resent and regular folks love. One mommy blogger called it “spit-from-your-sippy-cup funny,” and while anecdotally quoting my American sister-in-law’s Facebook page is not exactly hard proof, she is a good example of an everyday working mother who wrote (unprompted, of her own volition, without any Canadians recommending it to her!) that “Workin’ Moms on Netflix speaks to my soul,” which is honestly the nicest thing I’ve read by a normal non-Canadian about a CBC show.
That brings me back to my point: CBC-TV is actually good now. Netflix is definitely a disruptor, but part of that disruption has boosted our national broadcaster. Regardless of whether you resent your tax dollars going to the CBC, at least they’re now producing decent stuff that’s giving Canadian artists a chance to prove themselves on a global stage.