There’s a lot of reasons why remakes and revivals and adaptations take place [you mean beyond money? – ed.]. The celebrity driven ones – where someone famous says “I want to do this” and they’re famous enough to make it happen – aren’t always the worst, but they’re rarely the best. The problem is that they almost always end up turning the original material into something that suits them rather than coming up with a faithful or authentic adaptation: it’s just more of whatever it is they do, only now they’re wearing the skin of what we came to see.
When we first heard that the ABC was remaking Mother and Son, we figured they’d finally hit rock bottom. Make no mistake, it made sense for today’s ABC. A project that skewed old and promised a hefty dose of nostalgia? Shut up and take my 8.30pm Wednesday timeslot.
But the more we see of the actual finished project, the more we’re inclined to believe the press claiming that it was all Matt Okine’s idea (“imagine if we redid Mother and Son“). Because what we’re getting – in the Okine-scripted episodes at least – is less Mother and Son and more Son and his Love Life and is that his Mother over There?
Take this week’s episode. The opening scene? Arthur and his ex tidying up her house before she moves to Canberra. Aside from the mention of a nude cleaning crew? Comedy-free and intentionally so. Maybe, at a stretch, you could say the point was that Arthur could maybe get back with his ex if he didn’t have to help out with his mum. But really, it was just your typical lightweight, two people just hanging out dramedy scene.
If this was an entirely different series, then fine: be shit. But this is a reworking of one of Australia’s classic sitcoms. Who thinks the way to bring a sitcom into the 21st century is by deliberately making it less funny oh wait every single Australian television producer sorry we asked.
The rest of the episode sounds like traditional sitcom fare – a possibly dodgy overseas student is roped in to look after Maggie, Maggie decides to set up a weekend food stall like the old days and oh no, it’s the same day Arthur’s booked in to help his ex – but beyond that the laughs are thin on the ground.
Let’s cut Okine (who wrote this episode) some slack. Mother and Son is tricky to write, because the main dynamic is that Arthur is a whiny bitch – but with good reason. The idea is that to everyone else he looks like he’s overreacting, but because we get to see him with Maggie we know that he really does have a point. Only in this version, he doesn’t?
In 2023 all the rough edges have been sanded off both Maggie and Arthur. One’s slightly quirky, the other’s a little daggy. Which is not in any way how the original worked. So why ruin a classic formula? Is it a near-fatal desire to keep everyone “likable” and “relatable”? Yeah, let’s go with that. And what do you get when everyone is likable? It’s not comedy, that’s for sure.
With no deeper reason to hang around, we keep being told Arthur needs to be there to keep an eye on his mum to keep her safe. Honestly, he’s doing a pretty shit job of it. So shit, in fact, this episode begins with him coming home to find a complete stranger has moved in with his mother.
We thought the joke was going to be that Arthur thought his mum was trying to replace him but no, that would require some kind of serious emotional involvement: Arthur just thinks he’s a scammer. Which isn’t an entirely comedy-free scenario, but it’s yet another reminder that the big problem with this version of Mother and Son is that it often feels more like Old Lady and Distantly Related Carer*.
In the 2023 version, there’s no hidden depths to the relationship between mother and son. What you see is what you get, and what you get is a relationship that’s all surface. Forget any lurking resentments, or buried frustrations, or toxic co-dependency: it’s all out there in the open, and there’s not a lot of it to take in.
The same goes for Okine’s Arthur. He’s a failure, but in a kind of low stakes, not really important, he’s hardy even trying way. There’s no sense of him being seriously downtrodden or oppressed by his situation. His mum says embarrassing things: oh no. His sister doesn’t respect him: big deal. The grocer woman seems into him: why? He doesn’t need to escape his plight, he just needs some alone time on the Playstation.
Which makes him basically the same character Okine plays in everything he does. It’s also the same character he wrote about in his memoir, because “lovable self-aware loser” is the Matt Okine brand. Mother and Son is just the latest Matt Okine Project Starring Matt Okine [enough of the fake titles – ed.].
He’s not a Chris Lilley-level egotist by any means – as we always stress, Denise Scott is this version’s saving grace. But having him play Arthur as just another Okine stand-in kills off a lot of the comedy. He’s not a comedy character; he’s just some guy we’re meant to find relatable.
Unfortunately, he’s also just some guy who now has a track record when it comes to reboots. Give it a few years and he’ll be redoing Kath & Kim. Can’t wait for an all-new version of Fountian Lakes where Kim plays video games and hangs around the house claiming to have writers block while some much funnier actor plays Kath, getting half the screen time and twice the laughs.
*A large chunk of the episode is just Arthur hearing second-hand what his mother is doing. Why can’t we see her activities? They’ve got to be funnier than following Arthur around