Perhaps it’s because the present moment is so unsettled that “Call Your Mother,” ABC’s new sitcom from “The New Adventures of Old Christine” creator Kari Lizer, manages to feel in its pilot episode more comforting than it otherwise might. The series, about an overbearing mom (Kyra Sedgwick) barging in on the lives of her two children (Joey Bragg and Rachel Sennott), hits in its pilot episode — the only one made available to critics — notes that are alternately too familiar or jarring for the wrong reasons. The show has a pleasant warmth, but it seems to have too little of a sense about what within it works to find its footing.
Sedgwick’s Jean Raines, in the first episode’s early going, ditches Iowa in favor of Los Angeles as a way of dropping in on her son Freddie, who hasn’t picked up the phone for her in (gasp) four days. That this is really not so very long at all is the joke, but Sedgwick, when the pilot’s frantic pace slows for a beat, infuses the character with a say-everything desperation whose unfunniness seems to serve a larger point. “I’d still be breastfeeding if we lived in France!” she declares at one point to laughs from the laugh track but likely winces from viewers at home; earlier, she’d asked her best friend (a game Sherri Shepherd) “If I’m not mothering anymore, am I still a mother? If I’m not teaching anymore, am I still a teacher?”
This is a story worth exploring! Which makes it unfortunate that, for instance, the children’s storylines are swaddled in iffy attempts to stay current, like Freddie’s girlfriend (Emma Caymares), a parody of an influencer written with the broadest of strokes. (Daughter Jackie’s gay best friend, played by Austin Crute, emerges as a less hackneyed character through sheer force of charisma on Crute’s part.) A romance plot between Jean and the host of her AirBNB-style lodging (Patrick Brammall) feels unnecessary, unbelievable — given that Brammall’s handsome Brit is hosting paying guests in a beautifully appointed home that’s indistinguishable from Jean’s two children’s beautifully appointed homes — and almost mean-spirited. In her dealings with her children, whom she’s known their entire lives and who are now estranged from her and from one another, Jean’s lonesomeness comes through; when she tries to smooch the guy whose house she’s been staying in for a day, it seems misplaced and poorly paced, to say the least.
Sedgwick is a winning actress who’s had great success on TV, mainly in drama. She might have brought that edge to a show — even a laugh-tracked sitcom! — more interested in doing something beyond the broadest version of itself. The sunniness and relentless, incurious momentum of “Call Your Mother,” restricting what’s curious and interesting about Jean’s story and Sedgwick’s performance to the margins, is suggestive of a show whose unwillingness to take a risk results in the finished product being not much of anything at all. It takes more than familiar warmth to make us care about characters; they need to be allowed to be characters, too.