Nothing against my own dear ol' mom, but one of the reasons I loved sitcoms like Family Ties was that they allowed me to imagine a life where moms were cool friends instead of the harps nagging me to shut off the tube and go to bed already.
Elyse Keaton and other sweet-type mamas from the '70s and '80s were staples of my childhood and helped perpetuate the "family sitcom" and all its wondrous saccharine unbelievability. But as TV got all hip with itself, so did its moms, whose modern standouts include an extremely chatty former teen mom, three Mormon sister-wives, and a bunch of widows, including a neurotic pot-peddling suburbanite whose kids might have been better off had they run away from home.
To celebrate Mother's Day (it's this Sunday -- don't forget to call!), we're pitting classic moms against modern mamacitas. How does your favorite measure up?
Top 5 Classic TV Moms
Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch, 1969-1974)
She was hot, she dressed like an extra from Laugh-In, and she was my earliest impression of what a TV mom should be. For these reasons, Mrs. Brady is an automatic inductee in this hall of fame. I don't actually remember that much significant mothering happening on Mrs. Brady's part (it seems like Alice did most of the heavy lifting in this arena, especially with whiny Jan) but you have to give props to TV's first hot-widow-who-landed-an-even-hotter-widower for making family-blending seem so seamless. And so fun!
Marion Cunningham (Happy Days, 1974-1984)
Sure, she was a touch dim-witted, but a sweeter incarnation of The 1950's Housewife there never was. From her ongoing tolerance of a grumpy, lazy hubby ("Oh Howard ...) to her mothering of Fonzie ("Oh, Arthur ...), Mrs C. was the mom everyone wished they'd had, but whom only Richie and Joanie could claim as theirs. Luckiest fake teenagers on a 1970s shows about the 1950s, I'd say.
Elyse Keaton (Family Ties, 1982-1989)
I've written often of my undying love for this show, and Meredith Baxter-Birney's version of mom -- a new age-y former hippie -- was my fantasy version of motherhood. She was always getting busy with her husband (seriously, did anyone make out more than the Keatons?), trying to bond with her kids (Elyse: "OK, girls, let's have a good old-fashioned rap session!" Mallory: "What do you want to wrap?"), and being so unbelievably cool to her stuck-up, smug Republican son. Elyse showed that loving your kids was possible under the most challenging circumstances.
Clair Huxtable (The Cosby Show, 1984-1992)
As a fourth grader, I could see no plausible reason why I couldn't be the sixth Huxtable kid (or fifth if you count season one when Sondra didn't exist). Clair Huxtable, in her infinite beauty and never-ending supply of African-patterned scarves, was the main reason I wanted to escape to this alternate universe where race was irrelevant and it was totally reasonable that a 35-year-old actress could play a mom with a kid in college. Clair was firm, but fair; dry-witted, but charming; and somehow made foot rubs from Bill Cosby seem sexy. I know.
Roseanne (Roseanne, 1988-1997)
Classifying Roseanne Barr as a "classic" anything is little like calling Tonya Harding a world-class athlete. But her blue-collar den mother was TV's first believable mom: Her kids drove her nuts, she hated cooking, her husband was a helpless louse, and she never resisted sharing her feelings on all fronts. Rosie (as chubby-hubby Dan called her) was rude, crude, and up to here with her family's crap. And yet, she still managed to love them. If that ain't a classic mom, I don't know what is.
Top 5 Modern TV Moms
Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls, 2000-2007)
I hope not too many tweens tuned into CW's hit dramedy during its heyday, because the show actually made single motherhood (and in turn, teen pregnancy) seem kinda fun. Who wouldn't wanna be a super cool lifelong Mom-friend like Lauren Graham's Lorelai Gilmore? Her slightly ditsy vibe and rapid-fire chattiness created a sweet foil to her daughter's austere, old-soul attitude, offering a rare opportunity for TV writers to depict mothers and daughters as -- gasp! -- compatible friends.
Ruth Fisher (Six Feet Under, 2001-2005)
While Edie Falco was busy scooping up Emmys and Golden Globes for Carmela Soprano, Frances Conroy was quietly crafting the most hilarious and touching portrait of mom angst ever seen on TV (or HBO). Her Ruth Fisher, equal parts flower child, dutiful caretaker, and crazy person, was best when at the end of her tether, which was often. As the show evolved, Ruth's undying dedication to her adult-brat kids was replaced by a wonderful "everyone can go to hell" attitude that reinforced the sad reality that motherhood is the most thankless job in the world. Bleak, yes, but this show was about dead people.
Nancy Botwin (Weeds, 2005-present)
Say what you will about Nancy (mentally unstable, child endangerer, and felon come to mind) but this woman really loves her kids. How many widowed moms would undertake the risky enterprise of selling drugs to keep their sons in new sneakers and cute haircuts? For me, this show jumped the shark a season ago, and Mary-Louise Parker does grate a bit, but I have to give props to creator Jenji Kohan for pushing the boundaries of what "a good mom" means in a post-millennium world.
Barb, Nikki, Margene (Big Love, 2006-present)
If Gilmore Girls made single-momhood seem cool, the ladies of Big Love have convinced me that Mormon sister-wives ain't got it too bad (aside from the having to share their husband with two other women part). Sensible Barb, petulant Nikki, and fun-loving Margene are three different points on a surprisingly functional triangle of family life that requires little interaction from Bill, The Husband. I'm not itching, per se, to get into a plural-marriage situation anytime soon, but, if it happened, I'd look to Barb, Nikki, and Margene for guidance. These ladies have been mandated by God to be mothers. That's a fine reference, I'd say.
Nora Walker (Brothers and Sisters, 2006-present)
Overbearing? Check. Meddling? Oh, yeah. Unable to live a life that's even remotely separate from her five adult children? You bet. Sally Field's mastery of the Mom Role has officially peaked in ABC's hit Sunday-night drama, and it's all raw goodness: She actually looks her age (wrinkles and grey hair?) and she does everything you're not supposed to when your kids are grown up (i.e., do their laundry) while sacrificing her chance for any shred of happiness along the way. A little sad, sure, but this character inspires a renewed appreciation for birth control. Motherhood is indeed forever.