in the first episode of “House of Cards” season four, we meet Elizabeth Hale [Ellen Burstyn] in her Dallas estate, sitting on the edge of her bed, dressed in an all-white ensemble with an ivory jacket. Later she shames her daughter, Claire Underwood [Robin Wright], from trying to pull off a similar shade. “Even with your figure, it will accentuate all the wrong places.”
This year, television offered an abundance of estranged and complicated parent-child relationships to bring depth and clarity to a main character: Oh, that’s where they get [insert mannerism here]. In a television landscape obsessed with complex, messy protagonists, Burstyn’s performance was one of many this year by a guest actor who used their brief screen time to help the audience empathize with even the most enigmatic and isolating characters.
“I’m always afraid of hurting people’s feelings. But she wasn’t — at all,” Burstyn says, comparing herself to Hale. Through Burstyn’s performance, we understand the root of Claire’s icy demeanor. “I think Claire was not loved very well as a child, and she developed her own devices for coping with that.”
In “How to Get Away With Murder,” Annalise Keating [Viola Davis] and Ophelia Harkness [Cicely Tyson] also have a strained and complicated mother-daughter relationship. Harkness feels neglected by her daughter and thinks she is selfish, but is also Keating’s shoulder to cry on when needed. Keating wants home to be a refuge, but Harkness’ tough-love parenting is a reminder that home can cause more problems than it solves.
In “The Path,” Kathleen Turner appears in one episode [“A Homecoming”] to play Brenda Roberts, the estranged, alcoholic mother of Cal Roberts [Hugh Dancy]. The show only takes a few shots to set up their relationship: Dancy’s character opens a door to an apartment, sees bottles of alcohol and crushes a still-smoking cigarette. Turner emerges from a shadowy doorway and Dancy, lips quivering, utters two words — “Hi, mom.”
“I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor, and this was quite a character,” Turner says. The two take turns dumping their emotional baggage — futile jabs over lifestyle choices; frustration over an absent father.
“You worry,” Turner says. “I worried about her, whether she was just going to completely fade away, as it were. But, no, I don’t think so — I think she’ll be back. God only knows what she’ll be like then.”
Robert Wagner, who plays Anthony DiNozzo Sr. in “NCIS,” is another guest actor looking to keep his role alive, despite his on-screen son’s [Michael Weatherly] exit from the show. “There is some talk about them bringing me back into the fold of the ‘NCIS’ family,” Wagner says.
The actor says the father-son dynamic in the show taps into a common rift between parents and children, in and outside television. DiNozzo Sr. was absent for most of his son’s life, and attempts to make things better come with rocky side-effects. “We never quite ever were forthright and honest with each other,” he says. “And I think sometimes that is very predominant in relationships, you know?”
Like drama, the stakes for comedic guest roles have to be set up quickly. “The Big Bang Theory” centers around a group of friends, but uses family members in guest roles to help illuminate the regular cast’s backstory. Keith Carradine, for example, as Wyatt, reveals Penny’s [Kaley Cuoco] Midwestern childhood and good-natured attitude.
Carradine says he can relate to “the guy’s rural side” and the idea of having a grown daughter. “I have a couple of those myself.” He adds that taking part in the multi-camera sitcom-verse is a refreshing break from the self-seriousness he brings to “Madam Secretary.”
“It gives me a chance to sort of shake off my presidential gravitas for a week and do something, as the ‘Monty Python’ gang would say, ‘completely different.’”
It’s a feeling Laurie Metcalf can relate to, having two stellar guest spots this year — Mary, mother of Sheldon Cooper [Jim Parsons]; and Sarah, ex-wife to Horace [Louis C.K.] in “Horace and Pete.” In the former, the character’s devout religious values are a hilarious foil to Sheldon’s scientific allegiance; in the latter, she unravels a heartbreaking tale of infidelity.
Carrie Fisher plays Mia, mother to Rob Norris [Rob Delaney] in Amazon’s “Catastrophe.” In the show’s second season, her impeccable blunt profanity and comic timing continues to be a revelation. Mia lacks a basic understanding for social acceptability, which reveals some of Norris’ worst qualities. And Sharon Horgan’s character agrees when she spells it out to Mia, “You are a malevolent, hemorrhoid of a woman.”
Backstory is the driving force for season two of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”: Who, exactly, is Ellie Kemper’s titular Kimmy?
Lisa Kudrow’s turn as her mother is deployed in the season finale as delayed gratification, after the entire season gave little glimpses inside Kimmy’s troubled mind. Kudrow is the a-ha moment that the show builds to all season.
And, like only a guest arc can, in the course of one episode we come to understand the protagonist and empathize with each quirk and flaw. Complicated relationships with parents is not a new trope in television [not to mention life]. But even in comedy, parents can provide a Freudian angle to create stakes, deepen the complexity of even the most irrational protagonists and ultimately create better, more interesting shows.