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
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