Amanda Alison is on a crusade to revitalise representations of motherhood in comedy. The screenwriter, who pitched Mean Mums as part of Three's Comedy Pilot Week – which led to it getting a full series order – says the show was sparked by her frustration with how mothers are portrayed in sitcoms, which didn't reflect the real-life experiences she encountered.
"The mums are funny, but they're often quite naggy and quite the same, and have to carry the burden of a useless, slightly hilarious, overweight dad," she says. "When you go to school on a regular basis, which lots and lots of Kiwis do whether they work or not, you see a very interesting and hilarious range of people that I think people can relate to."
It was easy for Alison to imagine a comedy set in that world, because motherhood, she says, is inherently hilarious.
"It makes you crazy," she says. "This is the thing: being a mum, and I'm assuming a dad to a certain extent, makes you into a crazy person. You start off normal, and then you have this child that you love, and you desperately try and raise the right way, and you're always going to make mistakes, or they're always going to be different to what you think.
"That's what I like; when you go to school and have people quite normally tell you completely crazy things that they do, and you go, 'Okay. That's cool.'"
Alison was particularly emboldened by the feedback received from the pilot episode. "[We had] lots and lots of people sharing our thing going, 'This is my life, I know this lady, this is me.'"
Mean Mums is led by Morgana O'Reilly, who plays Jess, a young mum whose only son starts school, throwing her into a competitive world of judgmental, passive-aggressive mothers. There, she forms an unlikely alliance with two other mums (Anna Jullienne and Aroha Rawson) as they work towards a common goal.
O'Reilly was thrilled to read the scripts for Mean Mums, saying Alison's dialogue "just sings off the page; her style is so unique to her, you can really feel it". But beyond the quirky humour of the show, O'Reilly was excited to enter into a world that has been under-represented in film and television.
"On one hand, the world of a parent is very documented in a broad brushstrokes sense, and everybody knows that it's hard, and everyone knows that you don't sleep and all these things," she says.
"But apart from that, you don't really get catered for that much in entertainment, because you can't go out to see a show, and you can't go to a movie, so you're not necessarily an audience that people want to tap into much," she says. "With Big Little Lies, everyone was like, 'What! They're so interesting.' It's like, 'Yeah, we are.'
"These scripts, it's like they had been sitting inside Amanda for so long because it's her world," she says. "She's been very clear that this show is pro-parents, pro-teachers, pro-school, pro-women. Although the name may imply a cutthroat nature between the parents, it's actually a story of these three women becoming friends over the school year through the fact that they all love their children dearly and just want the best for them."
Though the show plays with different archetypes of motherhood, Alison ensured the show never condescended to any of its characters. "I wanted to make a really optimistic show because that's the sort of show that I like," she says. "It shouldn't be, 'Motherhood is terrible and it's really hard and we don't get paid.' Which is all true – but the optimistic thing is that all these shitty things happen, but you get to hang out with these fantastic kids, and you make friends with people that you'd never know in real life."
O'Reilly – herself a mother of two toddlers – says she can relate to Jess' awkward, fumbling-through-life personality. "When you become a parent, you're just a young person, and you're still you," she says. "You're still this flawed person who is just for some reason allowed to take care of another small person.
"Yesterday I felt like I was working in the most intense bar – I had these two children screaming at me for food, and it reminded me of working at the Basement Theatre, with these two drunk people screaming for drinks, and I'm just shoving things at them, just trying to shut them up and keep them happy and have a great time.
"Toddlers are just little drunks," says O'Reilly. "They're like, 'I love you so much' one minute, and then you're like, 'Do you want a sandwich?' – and they throw themselves on the ground."
And with O'Reilly's children not quite at school-age yet, Mean Mums acted as her own kind of education for when she enters into that world.
"It's made me better prepared I think – and excited," she says. "I'm looking forward to seeing if the archetypes are there."
Who: Morgana O'Reilly and Amanda Alison
What: Mean Mums
When: Tuesday, 8.35pm