Is Underbelly a show only a mommy can love?
For weeks, I've heard nothing but bad buzz about Notes from the Underbelly. Joel saw a screener for the show in July and he thought it was horrible. And to tell you the truth, the commercials didn't look all that funny.
That's why I sat down on Thursday night for the premiere of Notes from the Underbelly fully expecting to hate this show. So imagine my surprise, when I found myself laughing out loud quite a few times during Underbelly's first two episodes.
Mind you, it was a lot more sitcom-y (despite being shot with a single camera) than I like, but I was still amused. No, it didn't blow me away like the Desperate Housewives pilot or reinvent television like Sopranos. But it touched on a nerve -- a mommy nerve.
The main reason I decided to watch Underbelly, despite the critical trashing, is because I've written about motherhood, and have complained for years that there SHOULD be a show on TV that deals with the comic misadventures of motherhood. In fact, I pitched my own show (based on Andi Buchanan's Mother Shock: Loving Every [Other] Minute of It ) to Lifetime, Oxygen, and Touchstone a couple of years ago. Turns out that people in the industry don't think "motherhood is edgy enough" for TV.
Again, if you don't think motherhood is edgy, it's only because you've never had the experience. Okay, so perhaps Underbelly is best appreciated by moms or moms-to-be. I realize that a show geared towards mommies most likely won't be the next "watercooler" series. And a show playing to such a specific niche audience probably belongs on cable or even the internet, and not on network TV.
Let's face the facts: the all important 18-49 male demographic isn't going to flock to see a show that explores the comic complexities of motherhood. Unfortunately, that means Underbelly isn't going to be around very long. General consensus seems to be that the network is "pumping and dumping" (yeah that's a breastfeeding reference) the episodes as quickly as possible just to unload them. I should probably walk away now, before I get too attached.
And yet, I feel I can't just walk away without sticking up for Underbelly, because it is the type of show that will only survive and find its an audience with a little positive buzz. And I feel as if a lot of the bad buzz for this show was generated by TV critics who just didn't care for the subject matter. It's okay, they didn't relate to it, and didn't find it funny. That's their opinion. However, I'm annoyed by the condescending manner in which the show has been dismissed. It's like many aren't even willing to give it a chance because they consider the subject matter inconsequential. Granted, pregnancy isn't the sexiest TV concept to come along. But I happen to think motherhood is a topic ripe for comedy.
One of the biggest criticisms about the show I've heard is that the main characters are "unlikable." I admit the characters came off way too strong in the pilot, and this could be tweaked in upcoming episodes. Characters usually evolve on episodic TV, as actors add layers and depth. Besides, few sitcom characters are truly likable. I personally loved Friends, but couldn't stand any of the self-absorbed characters on their own. And yet, I enjoyed the way these characters played off one another. And I honestly hated all of the cartoon-characters that inhabit the Mode office on Ugly Betty's pilot, but have come to appreciate the show and its quirkier characters over time.
Unlike the critics, I didn't completely despise the Underbelly characters, and I'm willing to give them a chance. Jennifer Westfeldt plays the neurotic, ambivalent mom-to-be, Lauren, and reminded me of a smarter, hipper Phoebe from Friends. Her husband, Andrew (played by Peter Cambor) is probably the weakest character (and it doesn't help that he's a TV newbie), but he has a nice chemistry with Jennifer.
Lauren and Andrew are surrounded by wacky friends. Julie and Eric are uber-parents-in-training who seem to have lost their minds upon the conception of their child (it happens). They are here to show Lauren and Andrew what they can become if they aren't careful. Meanwhile, their single friends -- infantile Danny and oversexed Cooper -- are here to remind Lauren and Andrew that they are losing their identities by entering Planet Pregnancy. For the record, many reviewers hated the show but still liked the bitchy Cooper (played by a scene-stealing Rachel Harris). Her un-likability is apparently forgiven because she's such a hoot.
Underbelly didn't have the strongest pilot. So what? Some of the best TV shows had rough starts. You can't always judge a show after one or two episodes. Not that I'm saying Underbelly is destined to become "Must See TV." I just think the judgment on the show has been way too swift. I, for one, would like to see a couple of more episodes before I declare it a dud.
I thought it was very funny in parts. There were momentary glimpses -- specific details -- which I think hinted at some pretty darn good writing and acting. There was one particularly wonderful moment that takes place in a clothing store, when a child mistakes Lauren for her mom. It is a beautifully acted scene, in which we see ambivalent Lauren make a thousand re-adjustments in her mind in just seconds. In that moment, Lauren decides she's ready to take the biggest plunge of her life -- all because of a feeling, a gut instinct, an emotional whim. This is how it happens, people. One day, you wake up and decide it's time to grow-up and become someone's parent, ready or not (and you are NEVER truly ready).
Whether Underbelly will deliver, these are the moments that resonate most with me. And even though it wasn't perfect, I'm willing to give the series a chance because I like that it's trying to do something new, rather than give us the same old family sitcom. Besides, any show that attempts to take on the "Myth of Perfect Motherhood" is extremely appealing to me, and I suspect other mothers might agree.
I don't expect everyone to love the concept, but would it kill us to give Underbelly a chance? Heck, I'm just happy it isn't another uninspired show about oversexed (but unlikable) doctors, by-the-book (also unlikable) cops, or quirky (and extremely unlikable) lawyers.