Bad Mothers: Sarah and Anton put human drama back into crime drama

Bad Mothers on Sundance Now.. Daniel MacPherson as Anton Pooley. Image Courtesy of Sundance Now
Bad Mothers on Sundance Now.. Daniel MacPherson as Anton Pooley. Image Courtesy of Sundance Now /

Bad Mothers’ most compelling story isn’t who killed Charlotte; it’s the relationship between Sarah and Anton as they try to fix themselves.

Bad Mothers may be a murder mystery—but it’s no mystery why Anton and Sarah’s shattered marriage is the best part of the Sundance Now series.

Everything seemed perfect for Sarah (Tess Haubrich) and Anton (Daniel MacPherson) at the start. She was a successful doctor mingling with the “in crowd,” while he was a popular chef running his own restaurant. And then, as happens in so many TV crime dramas, it all came crashing down.

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Bad Mothers, both available for streaming on Sundance Now.

Sarah discovered that Anton had been cheating on her with her best friend Charlotte (guest star Melissa George), and not long after that, Charlotte was dead at the bottom of a staircase with him the only suspect in her murder.

Well, that’s one way to destroy a marriage.

More from TV Crime Dramas

But Bad Mothers found a new way to approach an old theme. Genre fans have seen before the “thought I know who he/she was until they were accused of a crime” plot.  Every major crime drama, if on the air long enough, will eventually have an episode where someone close to one of the main characters is a suspect, and the hero angsts over whether or not they committed the crime or how to clear their name.

What creators Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan did in the first two episodes was refuse to simplify down to that familiar storyline, and keep the focus in the most interesting place. It’s not just who killed Charlotte—it’s who are Anton and Sarah, and is there even an “Anton and Sarah” anymore?

It starts with the casting of Tess Haubrich and Daniel MacPherson; not only are they good actors, but they’ve worked together before specifically playing husband and wife, and that familiarity is immediately apparent on screen. The fact that they have history creates the history needed for the viewers to feel upset over the implosion of Anton and Sarah’s marriage. They come in with a warmth and a connection; it’s not a cold read for the audience.

The Bad Mothers. Courtesy of SundanceNow.
The Bad Mothers. Courtesy of SundanceNow. /

But it’s also about how their characters are written. Anton could have been a one-dimensional character who cheated on his wife, was pathetic/arrogant about it, and got tossed aside by both Sarah and the viewers in the first ten minutes. Instead, he is fully realized as an impulsive, sort of desperate guy who made a dumb mistake. As he says in the first episode, he just couldn’t take it anymore.

The “perfect life” is called that because it’s supposed to be perfect. It’s the thing we idealize. Yet what isn’t talked about is how much work it takes, both physically and psychologically. Everything has to go right and that’s a lot of pressure, and it makes perfect sense that someone more on the instinctual, creative side like Anton—Sarah states in Episode 2 that he has “no head for business”—would eventually feel as if his life had lost that creativity. It’s not about not appreciating what he had; it’s about missing that spark and that energy that isn’t in the blueprint.

You can see it in Daniel MacPherson’s performance; Strike Back fans know that he’s at his best when he’s digging into a character’s emotional side. The vulnerability and the internal conflict are visible in his eyes. Anton loves his wife, his kids and his career, but he doesn’t want to live like he’s painting by numbers. He certainly didn’t become successful by playing it safe in the kitchen, so what happened to the rest of his life?

Conversely, Sarah speaks for the audience, but Bad Mothers doesn’t take her down the “woman scorned” pathway. As angry as she is at her husband for his infidelity and the other lies he’s told, she has the grace and the maturity to look at the complete picture. That doesn’t mean that she excuses his actions, but she understands the context. He thought he was protecting her by not telling her the complete truth about several things, that he could handle it—even keeping the affair secret, in a way, was trying to protect her from being hurt by him needing something that she couldn’t give him.

That’s bone-headed, surely, and he definitely deserved her lighting all his clothes on fire. But it wasn’t intentional malice, and Sarah can see the difference. She also is incredibly strong, going through so many emotions as she juggles so much in Anton’s absence, but Bad Mothers never gives us the cliche scene of her having an emotional breakdown. She’s not going to go to pieces; she doesn’t have the time or the inclination.

She holds it together, she holds her family together, and both she and Anton are trying to hold their marriage together. They make an effort to fix the problems, not just dismiss them, even when those problems are literally murder.

Not that the murder is unimportant (Who killed Charlotte? is getting up there with Who shot J.R.? and Who shot Mr. Burns?) but this is a compelling relationship drama that happens to be around a murder mystery, not a murder mystery that crams some character subplots into it.

It’s honestly heartbreaking watching these two people trying to figure out what they have left together, not to mention who they are individually. They’re both realizing that they don’t know each other that well at all, and instead of just giving up on their marriage, they’re trying to learn again. And we want them to learn again, because Daniel MacPherson and Tess Haubrich have already made us care so much about these characters.

Good TV crime dramas have a strong mystery; great TV crime dramas understand that the people involved in the mystery have to be interesting, too. With Sarah and Anton, Bad Mothers has done both, and hopefully their marriage will come out okay on the other side.

Next. Daniel MacPherson talks Bad Mothers. dark

Bad Mothers streams Thursdays exclusively on Sundance Now.