Our first memories of television often involve sitting with our families watching fictional mothers and fathers who may—or may not—resemble our own. Intimate strangers are beamed into our living spaces, leading idealized versions of family life with most of the ugly stuff (financial struggle, impossible expectations, and sour disappointments) airbrushed out of the picture.
TV moms and dads have always been aspirational models as well as fun-house-mirror reflections of changing American realities. The family sitcom started promisingly in the 1940s with some relatively unconventional scenarios. The Goldbergs—created and written by radio colossus Gertrude Berg, who also starred in the show—depicted a Jewish family in the Bronx. Amos n Andy was a comedy series featuring African-American actors (albeit a deeply problematic one criticized for its depiction of African-Americans and its basis in a radio show that used minstrel stereotypes). I Love Lucy introduced ethnic intermarriage to the small screen when Lucille Ball persuaded CBS to cast as her TV spouse Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, her real-life husband.
Within a few years, though, this multicultural vision of America contracted to wall-to-wall whiteness. Early sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver conjured a midcentury middle-American paradise with a Hollywood-back-lot simulation of suburbia. In these prim domestic prisons, kindly patriarchs usually had the last word while perfectly coiffed wives cooked and cleaned for their mildly mischievous children, surrounded by exactly the same sort of shiny new kitchen appliances marketed by the shows sponsors. You can just imagine Betty Friedan watching and taking notes for The Feminine Mystique, the second-wave feminist classic that tore the lid off womens mounting misery in such soul-stifling domestic confinement.
No problem was so tricky that it couldnt be resolved in a half-hour time slot. The papers teemed with ominous headlines—civil-rights protests, the Cuban missile crisis, wars in Asia—but barely a trace of these real-world threats or tensions leaked into the hermetically sealed homes of these 50s and 60s series. Even when TV attempted to come to grips with a cultural shift, it did so in an oddly warped way. Anxiety about rising divorce rates indirectly inspired a flurry of series about single widowed fathers (My Three Sons, Bachelor Father, The Andy Griffith Show, The Courtship of Eddies Father, and Family Affair) who keep the family afloat, usually with the help of a selfless housekeeper.
Yet there were no sitcoms about divorced moms raising children until 1975, when actress Whitney Blake co-created One Day at a Time with her husband, Allan Manings, and Norman Lear. Lear injected a gritty new realism into the domestic series of the day. Such families as the upwardly mobile African-Americans of The Jeffersons, the white working-class clan of All in the Family, and the inhabitants of a Chicago housing project on Good Times all fought over the fraught cultural issues of that turbulent decade. Since this short golden age of relatively realistic and socially relevant comedy, the family-based sitcom has been repeatedly written off as dead, only to bolt back to life in some new tweaked form that reflects the concerns and anxieties of its era, whether its The Cosby Show, Roseanne, The Simpsons, Weeds, or Arrested Development.
The current, decentralized TV landscape has begun opening the medium up again to a more diverse vision of the American family: married, single, multi-generational, gay, straight, trans, suburban, cosmopolitan, strict, bohemian, wealthy, working-class. There are kids with disabilities (Speechless, on ABC) and kids who might be transgender (FXs Better Things); moms with postpartum depression (ABCs Black-ish) and dads recently released from prison (TBSs The Last O.G.). If there is a formula for TV families in 2018, it involves toppling traditional formulas, or stretching them to be more inclusive.
Constance Wu, star of ABCs Fresh Off the Boat, recalls that, growing up Asian-American in the 80s and 90s, “there were no TV families that reminded me of my own.” In TV history generally, she says, “there havent been a lot of stories that center the Asian-American experience in a way that celebrates it.” Wu believes Fresh Off the Boats portrait of a quirky, successful immigrant couple and their three sons plays a serious role in prime time. “A lot of the conversation around immigration and immigrants sometimes has sort of a fear around it,” Wu says. Through TV, “you get to experience the inner life of somebody.”
Although his role as gay dad Mitchell Pritchett, on ABCs Modern Family, has made Jesse Tyler Ferguson a TV icon (and a five-time Emmy nominee), the actor is most proud of the matter-of-factness with which the show treats its characters sexuality: “Mitchell and Cam are spouses first . . . and then theyre lawyers and teachers. Being gay is really kind of far down on the list.” We also see Mitch and Cam negotiating their careers and parenting responsibilities in a way that fathers rarely do on TV. The couple doesnt have a designated stay-at-home parent, but instead “we switch on and off,” Ferguson says. “I love that were presenting . . . that these struggles exist in any family and we have to just make things work.”
Actresses playing contemporary TV mothers are relieved that their characters are far more complex and varied than the ones they grew up watching. Jennifer Jason Leigh found herself embodying maternal extremes in two recent roles: Elsa, the overprotective mom of a kid on the autism spectrum, in Netflixs Atypical, and Eleanor, the fragile wife of a sadistic aristocrat, in Patrick Melrose, on Showtime. “[Eleanor is] sort of living in this very beautiful prison, and she loves her son very much, but shes also terrified of the father and . . . does the best that she can do,” Leigh explains.
“The moms on television are actually changing, which is really wonderful,” says Justina Machado, who plays Penelope Alvarez on Netflixs reboot of One Day at a Time, which Lear himself helped produce for the streaming service. A single Latina working mom and Iraq-war veteran, Penelope openly struggles with depression and PTSD as she raises her two children (one of whom came out as a lesbian in Season One). Machado remembers sitcoms of yore “where the moms were just kind of the sounding board”—marginal figures giggling, “Oh, you crazy kids!” Now that there are so many more female show-runners and writers, she says, they “are writing for women as people.”
Frankie Shaw, the show-runner and star of Showtimes SMILF, complains that TV traditionally put mothers on ridiculous pedestals. She wanted viewers to relate to “how hard it is to be a good mom and how the pressure to live up to this ideal is detrimental and painful.” Her single-mom character, Bridgette Bird, couldnt be further from the idealized TV mom in an apron and pearls—she masturbates with her child asleep in bed beside her and struggles with an eating disorder.
SMILF is set in blue-collar Boston, and the class consciousness of the original run of Roseanne was something of an inspiration, says Shaw. It was also important to Sara Gilbert, now serving as an executive producer on ABCs reboot of Roseanne as well as starring in her original role as Darlene Conner. Back in the 90s, Darlene seemed to be the Conner most likely to succeed. But now shes an unemployed single mom forced to move back in with her parents. “That cycle of poverty is so hard for people to break,” says Gilbert. “A big theme of the show is having these talents, having these ambitions, and not being able to live out your dream.” What happened to Darlene “felt true to the state of our country for many people.”
What unites so many of 2018s TV moms and dads, sons and daughters, is imperfection. Jack Pearson in NBCs This Is Us harks back to the golden age of TV fathers: hes a pillar of strength and a stockpile of wisdom. As played by Milo Ventimiglia, though, Jack also has the flaws and vulnerabilities of a contemporary dad, including a drinking problem. “Jack really wants to widen the perspective of his kids—he wants them to understand what theyre doing, why theyre doing it, how its impacting other people,” Ventimiglia says. Jack is not perfect, but “hes well intentioned. . . . Being a good man goes a long way in this day and age.”
This Is Us flashes between decades, a structural innovation that enables viewers to trace how the mothers and fathers legacies unfold through the lives of their children. “We are all created by our past,” Ventimiglia suggests, “but we all have a point where we can say, Hey, this is what happened in the past. . . . And you have a choice in this present moment right now to do something different.”
“Roseanne was my favorite TV mom. Thats so strange to say because I was on the show, but growing up feeling like youre not the average girl next door, it was cool to know that my TV parents werent that, either. I also liked watching The Wonder Years, or Meredith Baxter on Family Ties. Theres this other type of wish fulfillment, like these perfect parents and these perfect families. I had fun with that, but I definitely identified more with the TV family I was in.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Patrick Melrose (Showtime)
“I always loved the really imperfect moms, but with good hearts. Marge Simpson is married to Homer, who just wants to eat doughnuts and drink beer and works at a nuclear plant, but she still always sees the good and she always makes the moral, ethical choice. Shes a lot more real than all the other TV moms, I think.”
This Is Us (NBC)
“So many people were dying to know how [Jack] died, because it was a big mystery for the longest time. And I kept reminding people, Dont worry about how the man died, lets focus on how the man lived. And I think that actually helped me in my preparation for how he died: there was no preparation. You never know how its going to happen, so the best thing you can do is live life fully, try and be as uncomplicated in life, and just love the ones that love you back.”
“Im really interested in how people behave when theyre alone versus how they are with other people. Thats something that we get into throughout this series. It was like, Lets just show how hard it is to be twentysomething with a kid and trying to figure out your life. Whats been so amazing—a lot of men actually have related to some of the things that Bridgette has done. Ive had men come up to me, like, Ive left my kid in the car while I went to the post office.”
One Day at a Time (Netflix)
“Its been such an honor to be able to play a character who is a veteran, who has PTSD, who is a mom, and whos still functional in this world. It takes the stigma away from mental health, because in my [Puerto Rican] community the older generation did not believe in therapy.”
Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
“I have the complete opposite philosophy from Jessica Huang. Ive told my kids on the show, You know, you dont have to go to college. Which in Asian-American culture is, like, defiant. I say, If you really want to go to college, then of course you should go, but youre still a worthwhile person who can contribute to society and can do something amazing without a college degree. If Jessica heard me say that, shed slit my throat.”
Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Modern Family (ABC)
“There are certain things that Mitch and Cam do that Im like, Hmm, maybe not the best parenting choice. And thats certainly reflected in the way [their daughter] Lily reacts to them, but I think thats what every parent goes through. I remember being wildly embarrassed by my parents, and, you know, our parents are not perfect. Those flaws are what makes them lovable.”
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