For generations, childrens have been raised in front of the television. The role of mother in television started out as more of a stock role. Over the years, we’ve seen the classic archetypes challenged thanks to a diverse array of roles being written. Being the “Mom” character on a TV show doesn’t face the same implications it did in the 60s and 70s.
As we celebrate our own Mothers this Mothers Day, let’s celebrate the TV Moms that broke boundaries and captured our hearts.
Sally Field as Nora Walker in “Brothers and Sisters”
Few actresses have played as fiery a matriarch as Nora Walker. Nora takes control of the Walker clan after the death of her philandering husband. She deals with her son’s tour in Iraq and subsequent substance abuse problem with tenacity and grit. During a time when gay marriage was still illegal, Nora proudly supported her openly gay son and his romance. The push/pull relationship between Nora and her conservative political consultant daughter Kitty formed the bedrock of the show. However, Nora’s love and strength showed up in other ways. “If mothers ruled the world, there wouldn’t be any goddamn wars in the first place,” Field cried out from the Emmy stage while the censors went off. Nora makes this seem more true than not.
Patricia Heaton as Debra Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond”
Motherhood isn’t always an easy job. Nor is being a wife. Debra understands this perfectly as she deals with the Barone family, even raising a couple of her own. Patricia Heaton gives Debra a warmth even in her exasperated state. She’s full of tremendous amounts of love and care. Even better, she’s the voice of reason throughout. Heaton manages to make the “straight woman” funny. Her and Ray Romano have a delightful and lived in comedic chemistry that makes the show ring true. Heaton would go on to play another lovable, interesting mother in “The Middle.” However, “Everybody Loves Raymond” stands as her greatest achievement.
Courteney Cox as Jules Cobb in “Cougar Town”
Jules can drink every Mom on this list under the table. Her love of wine straddles the line of character quirk. However, what’s admirable is her ability to craft a loving extended community for her son, Travis (Dan Byrd). While the rest of her friends spent their 20s partying, Jules got pregnant and married. From here, she built up a successful real estate business and raised her son with not much help from her ne’er do well (ex) husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt). Upon reaching 40, Jules realizes it’s time to seize back her life. She manages to bestow confidence and energy to all she encounters, including her neighbors, friends and son. She loves deeply and with great fervor, or maybe that’s the wine talking.
Sharon Gless as Debbie Novotomy in “Queer as Folk”
Debbie was in PFLAG before it was cool. In “Queer as Folk,” she loves her son Michael for being gay, perhaps too much. Debbie never misses an opportunity to shower her son with love and embarrass him in public. As a waitress at Liberty Diner, Debbie dresses to the nines in different color neon. Gless makes sure that, while Debbie is loud, she’s never a caricature. Her deep, abiding empathy extends to every character in the show. This includes taking young gay Justin in to stay with her when he runs away from home. Few Moms love as hard as Debbie Novotomy.
Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore in “Gilmore Girls”
Lorelai Gilmore is not without her faults. She exhibits selfishness and impulsiveness, no doubt brought about by her coffee addiction. Her taste in men leaves much to be desired from and becomes combative at the drop of the hat, particularly to her parents. Yet, all these elements make her an amazing mother to her bookish daughter, Rory. Lauren Graham gives Lorelai spunk, while also including a healthy dollop of maternal strength and love. She wars with being the “cool Mom” or one to harshly reprimand. Still, missteps aside, Lorelai is the Mom you want cheering in the stands for you. She also makes for a delightful partner to toss pop culture references off of.
Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow “Bow” Johnson in “Black-ish”
Rainbow Johnson reinvents the typical portrait of a TV Mom in the traditional family sitcom. Bow is a highly educated doctor who frequently struggles how to balance her work and home life. While she plays the “straight man” to her husband Dre’s (Anthony Anderson) antics often times, Bow isn’t without her own fun. In fact, she turns ambition and drive into an exuberant affair. Bow also comes with a hilariously rich background that informs her character’s perspective, rather than serving as just a punchline. Born into a mixed race hippie family (parents Beau Bridges and Anna Deavere-Smith), Bow typically sees the sunny side of life. This makes her an interesting counterpoint on race and social issues to her husband, who grew up in South Central.
Justina Machado as Penelope in “One Day At a Time”
Gloria Calderon Kellet’s revisiting of Norman Lear’s classic “One Day at a Time” arrives like an oasis in the glut of streaming shows. At the center is Penelope, a Cuban-American war veteran who raises her children and takes care of her children. Justina Machado brings gusto and gravitas to the role, not shying away from the real problems Penelope faces. She fights an uphill battle to balance motherhood, education and a job in the medical field. Her PTSD also proves to be a real problem with no easy solve. Penelope feels that she can solve everyone else’s problems, but at times needs to step back and take care of herself. Machado gives life to the most well-rounded Mom on TV today.
Florence Henderson as Carol Brady in “The Brady Bunch”
Of all the idyllic mothers from classic family sitcoms, no one radiates more warmth and goodness than Carol Brady. Florence Henderson makes Carol a beacon of support and good ole fashioned values. In many ways, she creates the cliche and template we think of for classic sitcoms. That’s not to say her role is thin. In taking on both her kids and those of her husband, Carol manages a doubled home with grace and organization (and Alice). There’s a reason Florence Henderson has become synonymous with the classic sitcom Mom. It’s because she perfected it.
Phylicia Rashad as Claire Huxtable in “The Cosby Show”
Claire Huxtable runs her household like she runs her life. You don’t mess with Claire. She can be fun and loving, but at the same time authoritarian and able to keep the peace. Claire teaches us that Mothers can both be stern and loving. At the same time, Claire is an impressive career woman on top of being a world class mother. She maintains a successful law practice, finding fulfillment both in her professional and personal life. Rashad’s commitment to the character and her strengths in all aspect in life made Claire a feminist icon. Phylicia Rashad and Clarie Huxtable show us that you can do it all, and do it well.
Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson in “The Simpsons”
Marge Simpson has truly seen everything over her 29 years on TV. Her parenting style comes at a crossroad between hopefully loving and patiently knowing. Marge does what she can to reprimand her troublemaker Son, Bart, while also loving him for his rambunctious energy. She imbues her daughter Lisa with the drive and determination to break boundaries and accomplish her dreams. Plus, a special medal of service should be given to any woman who has had to take care of a newborn Maggie for 29 years. Aren’t children supposed to grow out of that? Marge knows her family will never grow out of what makes them frustrating and troubling. What makes her great is she loves them all the same.
Not every Mom acts as a beacon of light, love and happiness. As an honorable mention, we have one Mom that we love to hate:
Jessica Walters as Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development”
Lucille is the mother of five, but you would barely know it. Michael (Jason Bateman), her second oldest, only factors into her life when she needs something. To enlist his help, she often uses guilt, intimidation or just straight bribery. Every word she says to her only daughter, Lindsey (Portia de Rossi), is belittling and cruel. The relationship she has with her youngest, Buster (Tony Hale), is a cross between Norman Bates and Stockholm Syndrome. She also “doesn’t quite care for Gob (Will Arnett),” her oldest son. It’s fitting that the Bluth family’s downfall came at the hands of Annyong (Justin Lee), a child Lucille adopted to inspire jealousy. Poor Annyong spent most of his time living in the walls of the house due to Lucille’s negligence. With all that said, Jessica Walters makes Lucille the most deliciously hilarious figure in “Arrested Development’s” standout ensemble.