October 7, 2004
It all started with somebody’s mama.
‘‘Desperate Housewives’’ creator Marc Cherry was watching TV with his mother one night a few years ago when he saw a news report about the Andrea Yates case.
After several minutes spent absorbing the latest tragic twists and turns in the saga of the woman who drowned five of her children in a bathtub, Cherry recalls, ‘‘I said, ‘Gosh, can you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would hurt her own children?’ ’’
Said Martha Cherry, removing the cigarette from her mouth: ‘‘I’ve been there.’’
Oh, yeah? Well, where’s television been all this time?
Not giving us a full picture of motherhood, that’s where. Although one look at ‘‘Desperate Housewives’’ and the rest of the fall TV schedule suggests that’s all about to change. We’ve suddenly hit the mother lode of interesting mom characters, thanks to a convergence of current events, a newfound willingness to look at women’s complex, sometimes conflicted roles as nurturing caregivers, and the recent success of several shows that have fleshed out the standard parent roles.
Marc Cherry’s conversion began that night when his mother finally discussed her lonely, often frustrating (but not homicidal) years raising three kids, and he suddenly realized that ‘‘every woman’’ must have similar feelings at times. Listening to the actresses or creators behind this fall’s other notable moms almost giddily equate them with Tony Soprano, Scarlett O’Hara — even Stalin, in the case of Jessica Walter as the hilariously manipulative Lucille on Fox’s Emmy-winning comedy ‘‘Arrested Development’’ — it’s undeniably clear that mothers are the new black this season. That is, in vogue, indispensable and definitely not boring.
‘‘It’s kind of in the zeitgeist now,’’ says Thomas Schlamme about the current focus on moms in series like the WB’s ‘‘Jack & Bobby,’’ which he produces and where his real-life wife, Oscar winner Christine Lahti, plays a mother more powerful and unpredictable than Mother Nature herself. ‘‘I think we’re all interested in complicated characters on TV.’’
Complicated — and almost too numerous to count — are this fall’s slate of mothers, whether the genre is reality (only moms need apply to be on ABC’s highly anticipated and slightly misnomered ‘‘Wife Swap"), scripted drama or sitcom. ‘‘It’s such a pleasure to play a more dimensional adult,’’ says Lisa Darr, who’s a mother with a life as complicated and secretive in some ways as her teen son’s on ABC’s Thursday night show, ‘‘Life as We Know It.’’ ‘‘The last show that I did where I was the mom . . . it was, you know, ‘You kids be home by 11.’ "
Even when mom’s not around this fall, she — and her attendant drama — still linger. On the new ABC sitcom ‘‘Complete Savages,’’ five boys and their dad (Keith Carradine) are forced to cope when mom abandons them.
‘‘Marriages fail for all sorts of reasons,’’ says executive producer Mike Scully, explaining that until now, it’s usually been the dad who leaves on TV. ‘‘Sometimes mom doesn’t like being wife and mom.’’
How in the name of June Cleaver did we ever get here? Here from Laura Petrie, Donna Stone, Marion Cunningham or any of the other ‘‘classic’’ mom types who dominated TV from the late ’50s to the early ’80s, rarely venturing into the working world and never letting ’em see her sweat or become resentful as she kept the home running smoothly? So devoted was ‘‘Hazel’s’’ Dorothy Baxter to the traditional cause that she stayed home and had a fulltime maid. Meanwhile, nothing, not even magic, was better than life in the suburbs with her hubby and two kids for ‘‘Bewitched’s’’ Samantha Stephens.
It all added up to a case of art not imitating life, suggests Felicity Huffman, whose ‘‘Desperate Housewives’’ character, Lynette, willingly traded in a high-powered corporate career for motherhood on a bucolic suburban cul-de-sac. Four boisterous kids later, she’s chasing them down at a fellow mom’s memorial service (a suicide victim, she had her own issues) and more quietly wrestling with questions about how she’s ended up at this place in life and where she goes next.
In other words, TV is finally catching up with the real world.
‘‘Motherhood was the last icon in America,’’ says Huffman, who has two small children with husband William H. Macy. ‘‘There’s one way to be a mother and that’s basically to go, ‘I find it so fulfilling and I’ve never wanted anything else, and I love it.’ And if you do anything that diverges from that, you’re considered a bad mother. I didn’t know this existed until I became a mother, and the pressure is phenomenal.’’
The notion of traditional marriage and motherhood not being all that defines a woman isn’t new on television, of course. From ‘‘Julia’’ and ‘‘Alice’’ to ‘‘One Day at a Time’’ and ‘‘Kate & Allie,’’ TV moms have worked outside the home for three decades, although the implication usually was that they did the juggling act pretty much because there was no other option. Dad invariably was dead or had run off with another (read: younger) woman; mom was the breadwinner and disciplinarian mostly because she had to be, not because she wanted to be.
Fast-forward to 2004 and fictional Hart, Mo., where somebody clearly forgot to give Grace McCallister the memo. Watching ‘‘Jack & Bobby’s’’ professor mom kick butt and take names at a faculty party or ream out the high school principal who dares to try to discipline her sons — ‘‘I’m sure he did (confess), given your Gestapo-like tactics,’’ she snarls at the cowering man — it’s hard imagining she’s not exactly where she wants to be. And woe to anyone telling her differently.
‘‘When I was first talking to (Lahti) about the part, she joked, ‘I love this woman. She’s the Tony Soprano of mothers,’ ’’ says Greg Berlanti, another ‘‘Jack & Bobby’’ executive producer. ‘‘She’s a lot more engaged in her sons’ lives than you usually see in a mother on TV. In some ways, she’s like a father.’’
And as the mother of a future president of the United States (‘‘Jack & Bobby’s’’ premise), she’s also an incredibly relevant character to take center stage now, Schlamme says.
‘‘These are women who have been involved in the lives of great men, for good or bad,’’ Schlamme says of presidential mothers. ‘‘There are a lot of strong, overbearing women involved, and we don’t know how much of a role that played in the men (their sons) became.’’
Current events also help explain the first-year success of Fox’s ‘‘The O.C.’’ (returning Nov. 4), which — despite its glossy teen-show overtones — really gets interesting when its adult characters struggle to make sense of their marriage, their kids, job reversals and problems with their own parents.
‘‘I think if we were enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, the response to our show would be very different from what it is now,’’ says star Peter Gallagher, who assets that his Sandy Cohen character and the other ‘‘O.C.’’ grown-ups, for all their soapy quirks, feel more real in these anxious times.
Does that mean we wouldn’t enjoy watching Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) as much if we hadn’t invaded Iraq? Doubtful. A damaged, damaging mother — ‘‘one of the worst that we’ve ever seen on TV,’’ Clarke says — Julie last season left her husband (Tate Donovan) when the SEC started investigating him for financial irregularities. She was just getting started: She then put her seemingly depressed daughter (Mischa Barton) in therapy and had an affair with the teen’s exboyfriend and made sure nothing stopped her from getting Sandy’s much older, extremely wealthy father-inlaw to marry her.
‘‘I think Julie is just trying to survive,’’ Clarke says almost empathetically about her character, who’d probably just die to know that ‘‘O.C.’’ watchers know she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. ‘‘She’s not a traditional villain. She’s Scarlett O’Hara. She never will be poor again.’’
Neither will her two daughters, thanks to her, which may or may not make Julie a good mother.
But she’s definitely a more interesting and complex character than TV has traditionally given us from the ‘‘You kids be home by 11’’ set.
Strange, then, that Clarke thinks viewers find something familiar about Julie. Or is it?
‘‘I think these people exist, absolutely,’’ Clarke says. ‘‘Maybe we all have a little bit of (complicated) mother in us, and TV gives rein to that.’’
It’s about time.