By Gregory Keer
As a child of the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s, I had a lot of mommies. Sure, I grew up with a caring biological mom and, later, had the additional benefit of my step-mom. But I also had the smiles and advice of Laura, Marion, Carol, Clair, and Elyse — my TV moms.
While there were a number of mother characters on network television in the 1960s, the one who stood out for me was Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Played with bright energy by Mary Tyler Moore, Laura was an evolution from the apron-clad moms of the ‘50s. This mommy had a slightly neurotic sense of humor and a jazz-dance grace. I wanted to have a playdate with Ritchie just so I could have lunch with Laura.
The 1970s ushered in two of my favorite screen moms. Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) of The Brady Bunch never felt quite real, but that didn’t matter much. She could smooth out any bad situation with her blended family, which was comforting to experience vicariously on a weekly basis. Marion Ross was pitch perfect as she revealed the eccentric edges around the ‘50s mom stereotype. I’m told that a famous outtake of Happy Days exists in which she passionately smooches the Fonz (Henry Winkler). Now that’s a cutting-edge mama.
In adolescence, I often took the world too seriously. My ‘80s TV maternal heroes also took an earnest approach to life, but could inflect it with knowing humor. Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) of The Cosby Show made a formidably effective mom while balancing her career as an attorney. She always had time to teach her brood of five about doing the right thing. Meredith Baxter’s Elyse Keaton of Family Ties juggled motherhood and a profession (architecture), too. As a former hippie, Elyse was a model of acceptance as she allowed her children to be individuals even when she privately didn’t agree with all their decisions.
For my work-centric adulthood years of the ‘90s, I didn’t pay much attention to maternal characters, though I occasionally checked in with the barrier-busting mothers found in Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond. However, after living my own sitcom as a father for a while, I have been happily drawn back to TV moms because of the boom of must-see comedies.
Patricia Heaton goes from the level-headed Debra Barone of Raymond to the more put-upon Frankie Heck in The Middle. Frankie is a relatable mother caught literally in the middle of financial stresses, a sandwich of demanding children and parents, and a career she never planned on. If she actually lived in my neighborhood, she’d be someone to rely on to watch my kids in a pinch — and the first friend I’d send on a spa day for all her reliability.
On the farther side of eccentric, Virginia Chance, the X-generation mom and grandmother of Raising Hope, is fun to watch from the safety of the digital divide. Martha Plimpton plays the character with shades of good intentions and dignity, but she is the last person you want anywhere near your own children.
Then there’s the deliciously daffy Modern Family, which showcases Claire Dunphy (Julia Bowen) as the high-strung maternal type who just can’t keep her opinions to herself and still ends up being a loving caregiver. My only concern is that, if she were to exist in reality, she might end up in a straight-jacket at least temporarily if she didn’t get to be totally in charge of that next middle-school dance. In the same program, Gloria Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) is a lioness in protecting her son Manny. She’s also so ridiculously hot that Manny will likely grow up resenting the fact that his friends only want to come over to drool over her. Still, Modern Family’s mixture of comedic errors and dramatic poignancy are well embodied by moms who put family first yet also have personalities that go beyond simply being nurturers.
I’m not sure what else TV has in store for motherhood, though it’d be great to see mothers with more varied cultural and philosophical backgrounds if only to witness more contrasts in the way people parent. Yet, if one theme has held true since the ‘60s, it’s that no matter how harried sitcom moms get, they always manage to bounce back with a laugh and a wise perspective. Pretty much like a lot of the moms I know today.