Nut-job moms the reel deal

Move over smil­ing, apron-clad nur­tur­ers of yore – TV moth­ers are now of­ten bitchy, anx­ious and fum­bling amid their flaws

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moth­er­hood feels fa­mil­iar to me, and this is where I should go.’

“As a mom, there’s this pres­sure not only to raise your chil­dren cor­rectly, but to make a liv­ing and to make a lot of money,” she said. “It’s not pos­si­ble to do ev­ery­thing well all the time, and I think that is por­trayed on TV very ef­fec­tively.”

Ef­fec­tive it may be, but it is cer­tainly a marked de­par­ture from past TV moms – whether in the The Donna Reed Show in the 1950s or The Brady Bunch in the 1970s.

“My girl­friends and I talk about the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions – what they had to look like and think, (and how they) were sup­posed to do all these things and be per­fect,” says Mar­cia Cross, a mother of three-year-old twin girls, who plays the über-anal home­maker Bree Van de Kamp in Des­per­ate Housewives.

Flawed moms have ap­peared on TV be­fore, of course, though not to this ex­tent.

“The tur ning point with the truly flawed mom was Roseanne,” says Tina Pier­ac­cini, the author of Pink Tele­vi­sion: Sixty Years of Women on Prime Time. “And it was re­flect­ing so­ci­ety at that point, too, be­cause TV was ex­pand­ing and you could only have so many per­fect sit­u­a­tions.

“Be­tween 1979 and 1989, there was re­ally an in­crease in the work­ing moms on TV. Also, they were start­ing to show some of the flaws, with char­ac­ters like Carla (Rhea Perl­man) on Cheers, the sin­gle work­ing mom.”

The flaws have in­creased, even when to­day’s TV moms are try­ing to em­u­late the per­fect ones they watched on TV.

For Cross’s char­ac­ter, Bree, the irony is that her ma­ni­a­cal drive to be the per­fect wife and mother is what keeps tear­ing her fam­ily apart. But other TV moms, like her Des­per­ate neigh­bour Lynette Scavo (Felic­ity Huff­man), are also for­ever buck­ling un­der the strain of jug­gling fam­ily and ca­reer.

A prime ex­am­ple is Sarah (Rachel Grif­fiths) on Broth­ers and Sis­ters, a ca­reer woman with an Ivy League ed­u­ca­tion trapped in a cy­cle of per­sonal and pro­fes­sional frus­tra­tion.

For Grif­fiths, this re­flects the think­ing of our era.

“In the 1980s or 1990s, we had the Top Gun ver­sion of life where, if we try and we have enough will and enough courage and enough faith, we will suc­ceed,” she says.

“But re­cent events (ter­ror­ism and the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis) have hum­bled us all and bred re­silience. And part of that re­silience is say­ing: ‘Some­times we do our very best and it’s not enough.”

Is there a risk that, in con­vey­ing the no­tion that the best is not enough, these ac­tresses might push their char­ac­ters over the edge and make them seem too harsh? Grif­fiths’s char­ac­ter, for one, has been de­scribed in crit­i­cal terms.

“If I’m play­ing a bitch, I guess we’re all a bunch of bitches be­cause our lives are loaded and it’s a strug­gle and there’s cer­tainly of­ten not the time and grace to plas­ter the smile back on our faces and straighten out the apron.”

Just how far to go is a ques­tion ac­tresses and pro­duc­ers think about. That was the case with the Mother’s Day episode of The Mid­dle.

“There was some ques­tion as to whether it was ap­pro­pri­ate to have Frankie (Pa­tri­cia Heaton) say­ing, ‘Mother’s Day can be a real drag,” said ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Eileen Heisler. “But the sup­port we got from moms was huge.”

Oth­ers are more wary about caus­ing au­di­ences to lose sym­pa­thy for these char­ac­ters.

While play­ing these real moms poses risks, there are other risks, like be­ing seen in any mom role at all.

“Many ac­tresses re­fused to au­di­tion for the role of Claire on Mod­ern Fam­ily be­cause they did not want to play the mother of teenagers,” says Julie Bowen, who won the part. “I said: ‘Bring it on!’ It was a bril­liant pi­lot. I didn’t care if I was the mother of Godzilla.

“I would much rather gen­tly be eased into my dotage on a fan­tas­tic show than have them say: ‘Oh, she was cute once, back in the day.” – Reuters

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