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Reel Moms Get More Real: The Evolution of the Sitcom Mom (Column)

With all due respect to my mother, I was raised by sitcom moms. A latchkey kid, I grew up in front of the television (small wonder I ended up with this job), and with my own mother working full-time, I soaked up the attention of Mrs. Brady, Mrs. Cunningham and Mrs. Cleaver as soon as I got home from school.

I was fascinated by the idea of a mother who would have milk and cookies waiting for me, or would braid my hair while helping me with my homework.

But that was a fantasy — and as I got older, I realized those moms I idealized were pretty much fantasies, too.

Thanks to the new golden age of TV, those perfect sitcom moms of the ’70s and ’80s have been banished in favor of a slew of more realistic on-screen mothers who are messy, flawed — and far more human. What a relief!

During a time when we’re having so much conversation about representation onscreen, we’re finally getting a fuller, clearer picture of what it truly means to be a mother today: single or married; straight or gay; wealthy or working class; white, black, Asian or Latina. Whether their struggles are the driving force of the plot or simply an undercurrent to their narrative, this season we’ve seen a flood of powerhouse performances from women brilliantly redefining motherhood.

Take Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox on “Better Things.” One of my favorite scenes — and there are so many! — is when she’s at a bat mitzvah with her daughter Frankie, who’s subjecting her to a barrage of insults (as we all know we’ve delivered to our own mothers). It’s a relentless assault, and Sam sits there quietly, taking it in — until she stands up, grabs a plate of food, and smears it all over Frankie’s pristine white dress. Don’t feel bad for Frankie, though: Of course, she’s her mother’s daughter, and the episode’s coda, rather than giving us a saccharine sweet detente, delivers Frankie’s sly revenge.

That’s what motherhood looks like.

No matter how far Sam goes — and time and again, she crosses lines long thought verboten (that funeral!) — we never judge her. Never. She would laugh at us if we did. That’s just one of the reasons why Adlon earned an Emmy nomination last year — and deserves one again this time around.

Then there’s Tracee Ellis Ross, whose Rainbow Johnson has her own career, opinions, perspective, not to mention impeccable sense of style. She, too, speaks honestly and, yes, brutally to her kids — but this season, went deep to show something rarely seen on TV: a no-holds-barred portrayal of postpartum depression. When an illness impacts one in seven women, it’s once again proof that representation matters.

“Those perfect sitcom moms of the ’70s and ’80s have been banished.”

That’s what motherhood looks like.

On the other end of the economic scale, this season we met Frankie Shaw’s Bridgette on “SMILF,” and we were reintroduced to Roseanne on her titular sitcom, along with her own daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert), now coping with her kids of her own. All very different depictions of motherhood, to be sure — but they all shatter the myth that money is no object in TV land. Most of us do have to make tough financial decisions and deal with an unforgiving budget, and that reality check clearly resonated with audiences.

That’s what motherhood looks like.

The list goes on, of course: From the multi-generational Latinx families on “One Day at a Time” with Justina Machado and Rita Moreno and “Jane the Virgin’s” Gina Rodriguez, Andrea Navedo and Ivonne Coll, to the throwback moms of “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (the marvelous Rachel Brosnahan) and “The Goldbergs” (the brilliant Wendi McLendon-Covey), to, of course, the moms of “Mom”: Allison Janney and Anna Faris.

Dramas are getting in on the act, too: themes of motherhood thread throughout some of the darkest hours on TV, whether it’s June’s battle for her body in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Elizabeth Jennings balancing her political zeal while training her own daughter in “The Americans” or Carrie Mathison’s heartbreaking separation from Franny in the face of the relentless pursuit of her own beliefs. And of course there’s Rebecca Pearson, the rock of “This Is Us,” played to perfection by Mandy Moore across four decades.

I may not be a mother myself, but I recognize all of these women in the world around me. They’re not defined by the mere fact of their motherhood; their storylines aren’t in service to their children or their significant others.

As more women’s stories get heard, as more platforms open their doors (and their wallets) to letting female creators create honest portrayals of women’s lives, there will only be more to come.

This is what motherhood looks like.

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