‘It made us nervous’: Alison Bell on taking The Letdown to a ‘darker and harder’ place

Alison Bell as Audrey in the Letdown
‘Why just repeat stuff we’ve seen a thousand times?’ Alison Bell as Audrey in Australian television comedy series The Letdown.
‘Why just repeat stuff we’ve seen a thousand times?’ Alison Bell as Audrey in Australian television comedy series The Letdown.

As season two of her parenting comedy premieres, Bell says the scene she’s proudest of is the show’s darkest – and its funniest

Bridie Jabour

Last modified on Mon 21 Oct 2019 05.51 EDT

Even if they do not admit it, every parent, and perhaps especially every mother, has an idea of the kind of parent they will be. In particular, they think they will be different (read: better) than their own parents. They will read to their child every hour, they will only listen to Mozart, they will give thoughtful and articulate answers to life’s big questions, they will never be rushed, they will never be bored.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Then the baby arrives. Goodbye confidence, hello gulf of inadequacy.

In its first acclaimed season, ABC’s The Letdown sought to explore the exhausting reality and the ensuing identity crisis of parenthood via Audrey (Alison Bell, who co-created the show with Sarah Scheller) and her well-meaning but at times oblivious husband Jeremy (Duncan Fellows). Cue a season of comic relief, sleepless nights and misery. In season two, Bell and Scheller take the darkness that was threaded throughout it even further, with scenes that Bell says she was nervous to write and act in.

When the season opens, Audrey is still not cottoning on to the joy of being a “good enough” parent, as she hosts her daughter Stevie’s first birthday party. Jeremy has moved to Adelaide for work (“like a more intimate Sydney,” he tries to convince people), and Audrey is afraid of being judged for serving plastic cutlery in the backyard.

As the first two episodes progress, it moves away from first birthday debacle to big questions about fertility, second children and some of the particularly distressing sides of motherhood.

“A motivating force when writing this is, what haven’t we seen? Why just tread water, why just repeat stuff we’ve seen a thousand times? So we chose to go darker and harder and maybe even it was a challenge to ourselves as well. That made us both nervous at times,” Bell says.

“The scene that I’m most proud of is probably the darkest in the show. And to me, it’s also the funniest scene in the show. And I’m really proud of it.”

In one of the most brutal and funny episodes of the first season, Audrey is looking forward to her first big night out with her mates when her babysitter falls through. So Audrey shows up to the dinner at a nice restaurant with the baby strapped to her, and tries to pretend it’s not a big deal.

After essentially being pushed out the door by her friends, Audrey sits crying on the bus home, torn away from the life she once had and the person she thought she was and still wants to be. But through her tears Stevie is looking up at her – one of those moments most parents have had, where they mourn what has been lost but think perhaps it is worth it.

“It was a wonderful challenge,” Bell says about melding light with dark. “Just like you find people laughing at wakes, we find the comedy. As Australians I think we do that culturally a lot – trying to find the funny side of the darkest, darkest moments. That’s just interesting to us.”

Alison Bell as Audrey in season two of ABC’s The Letdown
‘Just like you find people laughing at wakes, we find the comedy.’

In real life, Bell looks … exactly like Audrey but less tired. At the cafe in the ABC headquarters in Sydney, she is nervous and jubilant about the second series of her TV show, the pilot of which she was writing when she herself had a newborn. Her son is now five and Bell has watched the show become a critical success, with a worldwide audience thanks to Netflix.

Bell says she wanted to show that the expectations of parenthood were never going to match the reality.

“That’s pretty much all we wanted to say. We don’t want to judge anyone’s parenting in this show, because we’re not getting it right either. The expectations are never met, that’s pretty much the thrust of the show; we’ve been fed so many versions of motherhood and most of them are pretty glossy, particularly our generation. That’s being dismantled now I think.

“But the point of this show was: [you] will have images of the kind of mother your want to be; you will not be that mother. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think there is this notion – and I think it is particular to our generation – that perfection is now the goal. Not being the best you can be, but perfection. And that’s insane.”

Bell says she has been accused of man-bashing because of the portrayal of Jeremy – and the stress of a newborn interrupting what was a previously lovely relationship. In the first season, as the baby cries, Jeremy calls out from the nursery “what should I do, pick her up?” – and Audrey sits down exhausted in another room. It’s a classic illustration of the mother as the “expert” on the baby and a father who “wants to help” but is unable to take the initiative. In the second season he comes home from Adelaide and says he wants to “just look at her” as Stevie sleeps. Please don’t wake her up, Audrey warns, and Jeremy goes into the room where his phone, not on silent, rings right next to the baby.

Audrey (Alison Bell) and Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) in a promo shot for the second season of ABC’s The Letdown
Audrey (Alison Bell) and Jeremy (Duncan Fellows). ‘We wanted to represent the hangover of a very gendered upbringing ... [and] the resentment that can be there.’ Photograph: Tony Mott

“We wanted to represent the hangover of a very gendered upbringing; most of us come from parents who [played] those gender roles. Most of us come from mothers whose careers took a big hit when they had children. They’re in the home, probably, caring for extended periods.

“I hope we don’t make Jeremy’s character a bad guy. He’s just a guy trying his best … but also we didn’t want to lie about the the resentment that can be there and it can be irrational, and it can sometimes be unjustified.”

Bell pauses and laughs. “I think it’s often justified though.”

When The Letdown first aired on Netflix she and Scheller prepared for “radio silence”. Instead it pushed the door “ajar” to opportunities in the United States; Bell says she has been recognised in playgrounds in Los Angeles, where she has since relocated her family.

It’s not just her life that has changed drastically since conceiving the series, but the cultural conversation around motherhood as well. Bell says when they started The Letdown, there was nothing really like it out there – but these days there are far more articles, books and even other TV shows that eschew the “glossy” picture.

“The conversation [around parenting] has kind of shifted from these redundant ‘mommy wars’, I think, into something a little bit more useful.”

  • Season two of The Letdown premieres at 9pm on Wednesday 29 May on the ABC, with the full season available to watch on iView following the broadcast

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