“We feel so much pressure in the writers’ room that this isn’t just a comedic relief show—this is a show where we’re representing a lot of people that feel marginalized and not represented on television, so we want to do them justice.”
Catherine Reitman is living that working mom life—hard. She is the showrunner on CBC’s comedy hit Workin’ Moms (which she produces with her husband Philip Sternberg); she also writes and directs for the show. Oh, and stars on it. In addition to her show baby, she has two little ones at home. (She also pops up on Black-ish from time to time.) Reitman has won fans among the mom brigade and beyond for her raw, honest portrayal of the trials and tribulations of motherhood, from postpartum depression to breastfeeding boobs. With season three premiering today, we spoke with Reitman about directing cranky old men, tackling #MeToo on-screen, and working with her hubs.
What are some issues and experiences that you felt were missing from the modern TV landscape that you wanted to show on Workin’ Moms?
I felt that there was a limited portrayal of how mothers appeared on television. When I first got pregnant, my husband and I were huge consumers of premium cable television, and we were watching all of these shows, and it would either be the B-storyline of a show like Homeland, where she’s a working mother, or you have even smaller C-storylines on a show like Mad Men. And when mother storylines were A-storylines, they felt either very broad or kind of melodramatic—I wanted to see the comedy that I was used to watching with my husband, but my story. And I couldn’t find that anywhere.
Workin’ Moms sold to FX first, before they passed and the CBC snapped it up. How is producing TV in Canada different than in the States? Are there things you can do here that you can’t do there?
Absolutely. Coming to Canada has been incredibly liberating, both creatively and production-wise for [my husband and co-producer/co-star] Philip and I. For one, we’re partners in the creation of our show, as opposed to the usual contact you’d get in the United States, where you’re an employee on a show of your own creation. So, being able to feel ownership not only is exhilarating because it’s yours, but also you feel so much more responsibility, you know? If the show fails or succeeds, it’s on you.
How does season three take it to the next level for our characters?
I’m lucky enough to be stopped on the street for two things, usually: for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and for Workin’ Moms. And it’s two extraordinarily different experiences, and rightly so: It’s Always Sunny is hilarious and crazy, while our show is more of a dramedy. But what’s amazing is, even if I get stopped for Black-ish, they’ll say something like, “Oh, man, that show’s hilarious,” or, “I watch it with my wife.” But a show like Workin’ Moms has been really different for me: a lot of people forget that I even make the show and just think I’m an actor on it, and will say something like, “That’s my story you’re telling,” or ‘That’s me—I am Kate,” or, “I am Anne,” or “I am Frankie.” We feel so much pressure in the writers’ room that this isn’t just a comedic relief show—this is a show where we’re representing a lot of people that feel marginalized and not represented on television, so we want to do them justice. We got so much love for the first two seasons that in season three we wanted to make sure we were continuing to push the standards. And it’s a hell of a season. Kate is in a whole new world; she has to start from scratch in every aspect of her life, and as a single mother.
What is the hardest part about being a showrunner?
They say it comes from the top, energy-wise, and, not to get all spiritual here, but the hardest part is setting a standard for the way we speak, communicate, and treat each other on set and in post—making everyone feel comfortable and safe enough to be creative, while also letting them know that cruelty is not tolerated. And maintaining that supportive vibe, while making sure I’m still pushing everyone hard enough that we’re getting our days and that we’re coming in at budget. So, that’s a complicated dance for someone that’s naturally a people-pleaser.
Women are also conditioned to be people-pleasers. It can be hard to overcome that societal conditioning.
Oh, absolutely. About 15% of my employees are men who are much older than me. We’ve certainly had a large turnover rate in that department because some people can’t take direction from a woman that’s younger than them. That’s definitely not the entirety of our staff—I have some remarkable men on my crew—but every once in a while you come across a person who doesn’t want to be directed by a younger woman, and that’s always an a-ha moment for me.
And what is the most rewarding part of being a showrunner for you?
It’s about the fans. Season one, I thought, “how could it be more rewarding than seeing the shows all cut together and witnessing all the hard work of creating this whole 21:49 episode?” But then when a fan stops you on the street and is emotional or is just delighted…I was in a toy store last weekend, and a mom with her little daughter stopped me and she started crying right there in the store, saying, “That story from season one, that postpartum story: that is my story, and I can’t tell you how much this show means to me, what the message means to me,” and I was completely overwhelmed. There’s nothing more rewarding than that: when you see someone really affected by the stories you’re choosing to tell.
What are your strategies for having to balance acting, directing, and producing? How do you practice self-care while juggling all three roles at once?
“It’s too much” is the simple answer. I’m having to choose fewer hats so that I can do each hat more effectively. In the beginning, you’re like, “holy crap: opportunity! I want to do as much as I can and just say yes to all these gifts,” and you want be grateful and try to do your best. But then you realize—I am lucky enough to have three seasons now, where I can look back and I can see where the product suffers and where it shines, and it shines when I can give it my all. So, I’m having to be more particular and learning to say no and learning to delegate power to people like our fellow producers, who are really talented. And, just in general, taking a step back and learning to be introverted sometimes. Taking lunch by myself every once in a while and slowing down—that helps me a lot.
How is it also working so closely with your partner? Like, you are parents together, but you also act on this show together and co-run it together. How do you make sure you don’t want to murder each other at the end of the day?
Oh my god, it’s such a balance! Like, there’s murder days, and then there’s, like, “holy crap, we’re a superhero team” days. It’s both extraordinary and challenging. I’m lucky enough to have this guy who I can talk about delegating power to. He’s my other brain, and he’s extraordinary at this—just one of the hardest workers and the most creative thinkers I’ve ever worked with. So, it’s great because I have this other amazing person that I can lean on. I was answering earlier how difficult it is to be both in front of and behind the camera. Someone like that is an amazing person for me because I trust no one more behind the camera, watching me and saying, “Okay, you’re going to want to go again on that,” or “You’re gonna want to dial it down.” And, yeah, there are the murder days where I feel like he’s witnessing all my failures, and it’s humiliating, and I have to go home, and he’s still there. So, there’s both. There’s completely both. But I wouldn’t trade it.
This season, PR maven Kate has her baby, Ella, mid-separation from her husband Nathan (played by your IRL husband, Philip!), and chooses not to let him see the baby at first. Some folks might see this as a chic feminist power move, while others may see it as a cruel thing to do to a new father. What went into giving this choice to Kate? How did that go down in the writers’ room?
That particular choice took a lot of back-and-forth. [The amount of time she kept the baby away from him] went from six months to two months. It went from two months to six weeks. We were just bouncing around, and the network was weighing in heavily on it. For us, it was Kate claiming her body and her child [after being cheated on]; she wanted to take what little power and control over her life she could back. Her motto for the first half of the season is, “I can do all of this by myself.” Which is impossible. Speaking from personal experience, you have to lean on other people, and of course Kate does: she leans on her mother, she leans on Anne, she leans on her school, she’s got a community of people that she relies on including Rosie and her workplace, but I think when you’re feeling that scared and that rejected, as Kate is at the beginning of the season, you feel like you can only trust yourself. And exposing even your newborn to someone you don’t trust is a very scary thing. So, Kate makes a selfish choice, but to her it feels right in the moment.
It’s interesting to see how that plays out over the first few episodes. We’re in an intriguing moment as far as cheating is concerned, with some folks—like Esther Perel—advocating for less knee-jerk reactions and more forgiveness post-cheating. Was this cultural moment something you had in mind?
As far as whether it’s a deal-breaker, I do think that’s a fascinating topic. I think we all have different limitations of what we’re willing to live with, and for a character like Kate who is ambitious to a fault and refuses to not have it all, could she overlook something like that so that her plate is full?
Going over to therapist Anne, she’s dealing with the fall-out of the trial of her sexual harasser, Dr. Brad, and, in episode two, she has a bit of a freak-out, smashing up a car. Was this outrage important for you to show right now, during the #MeToo uprising?
We actually were writing this before a lot of the #MeToo movement was happening; we had already been wrapped and we were cutting our episode when the Harvey Weinstein story went wide. And we had to re-shoot the end of that storyline in season two to further punish Dr. Brad because of the amount of anger that was happening. ‘Cause, look, we’d all, in that room, experienced our own varying degrees of it—of being silenced, or feeling uncomfortable about men in our industry. The idea that we could punish that character, for some reason, didn’t even seem like the right thing to do initially. It was just, “how is Anne going to deal with it? How are we going to keep working and keep dealing with this and suppress it long enough to survive?” And then there was something so rewarding about going back and going, “No: we’ve got to punish this guy! This is unacceptable.” And so, starting season three going, “okay, so where does a character land after experiencing that?” You can take them to court, but how do you feel, how do you move forward? And so, setting her in an environment where she’s actually going to be guiding students of trauma at the university, as a survivor of trauma herself, just felt like a great place to tell a story.
It’s nice, because so much of the post-assault narrative we hear is about the predators, rather than their victims.
And then, how do they continue if they’ve got young daughters? Anne’s got Alice, and a big chunk of her storyline this season is, after healing that trauma, after experiencing that lack of trust in the world around you, how do you release a budding teenage girl into that same environment? It’s a really nerve-wracking thing that a lot of women right now are thinking about.
Workin’ Moms received some backlash from critics—namely The Globe and Mail—when it came out, with the Globe headline stating that “Workin’ Moms reeks of entitlement and privilege.” In this season, for example, Kate had to move out of her house mid-separation—so she rented a very expensive-looking loft. Is this concept of privilege something you have discussed in the writing room? Is this something Kate herself will tackle at some point?
Our characters are financially stable; Frankie is on the lower end of it, and Kate is on the higher end of it. I wrote to what I know. I can’t deny that I’ve had a privileged upbringing. I’ve been really fortunate regarding how I entered this world, not just financially, but in that I have really great parents who show me a lot of love. I wanted to write what I know, and we continue to push the room to open up these stories and explore, financially, the different elements of it. But at the end of the day, this is one of those things that keeps coming back at me where I go, “this can’t be the only show out there representing this,” right? There’s SMILF and now these great shows about working mothers trying to get by, and what it is to be them. This is my particular take on it. This is my lens, so to speak, and it’s never that I don’t want to explore others—I continue to push—but as far as these past few seasons, this is where these characters landed.
It’s hard, too, because there are multiple lenses: gender, class. Another example would be Big Little Lies: do we roll our eyes at the uber-wealth these families enjoy, or revel in the increased awareness of intimate partner violence and sexual assault? Or both?
And it’s not that the lens isn’t important. But you’re absolutely right in that, gender-wise, these stories are also just stories that need to be told, whether it’s postpartum or the hormonal and identity crisis that happens when you have a child and then return to work, regardless of if you can afford daycare or your mother is helping you out, or whatever. It’s too bad that we can’t have each other’s backs and just see how important these stories are to tell.