Flawed parenting replaces June Cleaver era
When it comes to the wide array of television moms these days, you may still see them occasionally in the kitchen, but what they’re cooking with varies, and the results of their parenting often splatter brilliantly against the walls.
Some are fueled by their career-first choices at, perhaps, the expense of their children (Glenn Close on “Damages,” Patricia Heaton on “Back to You”), others are zanily inadequate at the juggling act of personal happiness and parental responsibility (“Desperate Housewives,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine”), and then there are the lawbreakers who could be carted off to jail at any moment (Minnie Driver on “The Riches,” Mary-Louise Parker on “Weeds,” the polygamist trio on “Big Love”).
Are these fascinatingly flawed creatures the ultimate reaction to the June Cleaver era of happy, smiling paragons of domestic virtue?
“I’m not sure,” Kari Lizer, creator and exec producer of “Old Christine,” says about her show, “but it’s certainly against this idea there is only one way to do it right.”
As played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Christine is not only toiling at her mom duties — which she shares with her ex-husband — but also with her self-preservation as a woman of a certain age in fear of losing her ability to attract men. Her imperfections make for plenty of humiliation comedy.
“Motherhood gives us boundaries on the show,” Lizer says. “Christine can be crazy and wacky, but at the center, it has to be in the name of taking care of her kid. We’re doing a sitcom, not trying to educate people on how to mother a child. Anybody who wants to emulate her behavior should have their children and their television taken away.”
Nothing baffles Lizer more than the feedback she gets about Christine’s sexual activity, which, compared to the promiscuity of male characters, is almost droughtlike.
Lizer observes: “I know they don’t get those comments about Charlie Sheen (who plays an unapologetic womanizing uncle on “Two and a Half Men”). There’s a kid in that house when people are in every bedroom. We get treated a little differently because a mother is held to a higher standard than a father.”
For Driver, who on “The Riches” plays drug-addicted ex-con Dahlia Malloy, a goodhearted grifter who has raised three con-artist kids, it’s all about honestly portraying the struggle of mommyhood, and that anything else doesn’t do the role justice.
“It’s a completely impossible relationship filled with so much love and frustration that to accurately portray it, you have to see all sides of it,” Driver says. “We very rarely do. People are either angry with their parents or unrealistically in love with them. To find a balance between those two things is really artful.”
When Driver hears from friends or strangers who watch the show, how they feel about Dahlia is definitely two-sided: “They love her because she’s articulate and not shut down, but they’re gripped by whether she’s ever going to put her children in danger. It’s a very interesting knife’s edge, and I think people are enthralled by it because it’s different.”
Parker, on the other hand, has one response to anyone who takes umbrage to the idea of her suburban marijuana-selling mom on the blistering satire “Weeds.”
“It’s fiction,” she says. “It’s not propaganda. It’s entertainment. There are a lot of moms in the world, and I’m sure this mother exists somewhere.”
Parker’s liberated widow Nancy Botwin may be a drug dealer, but what might brand her the most radical mother in many a television moon is something else Parker points out about her.
“I don’t think she’s a natural mom,” she says. “I don’t think she’s a horrendous parent, but there are people who live in this fantasy of they’ll be a better parent later. There’s really only now when you’re a parent. I think about my kids all the time, what they’ll eat, what they’ll do. I don’t think she does that.”
Besides, she says, “I’m not really interested in portraying the utopian paradigm of a perfect mother. You’re supposed to expect that every woman is suited to it and born to it, and that’s just not the case, right?”