Milo Ventimiglia, Sara Gilbert, Constance Wu, and Other TV Moms and Dads Sound Off
“Our parents are not perfect. Those flaws are what makes them lovable.” From Father Knows Best to Arrested Development, we’ve all loved and learned from a favorite TV parent. The current crop of TV moms and dads discuss what makes playing them so special.
Our first memories of television often involve sitting with our families watching fictional mothers and fathers who may—or may not—resemble our own. Intimate strangers are beamed into our living spaces, leading idealized versions of family life with most of the ugly stuff (financial struggle, impossible expectations, and sour disappointments) airbrushed out of the picture.
TV moms and dads have always been aspirational models as well as fun-house-mirror reflections of changing American realities. The family sitcom started promisingly in the 1940s with some relatively unconventional scenarios. The Goldbergs—created and written by radio colossus Gertrude Berg, who also starred in the show—depicted a Jewish family in the Bronx. Amos ’n’ Andy was a comedy series featuring African-American actors (albeit a deeply problematic one criticized for its depiction of African-Americans and its basis in a radio show that used minstrel stereotypes). I Love Lucy introduced ethnic intermarriage to the small screen when Lucille Ball persuaded CBS to cast as her TV spouse Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, her real-life husband.
Try Vanity Fair and receive a free tote.Join Now
Within a few years, though, this multicultural vision of America contracted to wall-to-wall whiteness. Early sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver conjured a midcentury middle-American paradise with a Hollywood-back-lot simulation of suburbia. In these prim domestic prisons, kindly patriarchs usually had the last word while perfectly coiffed wives cooked and cleaned for their mildly mischievous children, surrounded by exactly the same sort of shiny new kitchen appliances marketed by the show’s sponsors. You can just imagine Betty Friedan watching and taking notes for The Feminine Mystique, the second-wave feminist classic that tore the lid off women’s mounting misery in such soul-stifling domestic confinement.
No problem was so tricky that it couldn’t be resolved in a half-hour time slot. The papers teemed with ominous headlines—civil-rights protests, the Cuban missile crisis, wars in Asia—but barely a trace of these real-world threats or tensions leaked into the hermetically sealed homes of these 50s and 60s series. Even when TV attempted to come to grips with a cultural shift, it did so in an oddly warped way. Anxiety about rising divorce rates indirectly inspired a flurry of series about single widowed fathers (My Three Sons, Bachelor Father, The Andy Griffith Show, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and Family Affair) who keep the family afloat, usually with the help of a selfless housekeeper.
Yet there were no sitcoms about divorced moms raising children until 1975, when actress Whitney Blake co-created One Day at a Time with her husband, Allan Manings, and Norman Lear. Lear injected a gritty new realism into the domestic series of the day. Such families as the upwardly mobile African-Americans of The Jeffersons, the white working-class clan of All in the Family, and the inhabitants of a Chicago housing project on Good Times all fought over the fraught cultural issues of that turbulent decade. Since this short golden age of relatively realistic and socially relevant comedy, the family-based sitcom has been repeatedly written off as dead, only to bolt back to life in some new tweaked form that reflects the concerns and anxieties of its era, whether it’s The Cosby Show, Roseanne, The Simpsons, Weeds, or Arrested Development.
The current, decentralized TV landscape has begun opening the medium up again to a more diverse vision of the American family: married, single, multi-generational, gay, straight, trans, suburban, cosmopolitan, strict, bohemian, wealthy, working-class. There are kids with disabilities (Speechless, on ABC) and kids who might be transgender (FX’s Better Things); moms with postpartum depression (ABC’s Black-ish) and dads recently released from prison (TBS’s The Last O.G.). If there is a formula for TV families in 2018, it involves toppling traditional formulas, or stretching them to be more inclusive.
Constance Wu, star of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, recalls that, growing up Asian-American in the 80s and 90s, “there were no TV families that reminded me of my own.” In TV history generally, she says, “there haven’t been a lot of stories that center the Asian-American experience in a way that celebrates it.” Wu believes Fresh Off the Boat’s portrait of a quirky, successful immigrant couple and their three sons plays a serious role in prime time. “A lot of the conversation around immigration and immigrants sometimes has sort of a fear around it,” Wu says. Through TV, “you get to experience the inner life of somebody.”
Although his role as gay dad Mitchell Pritchett, on ABC’s Modern Family, has made Jesse Tyler Ferguson a TV icon (and a five-time Emmy nominee), the actor is most proud of the matter-of-factness with which the show treats its characters’ sexuality: “Mitchell and Cam are spouses first . . . and then they’re lawyers and teachers. Being gay is really kind of far down on the list.” We also see Mitch and Cam negotiating their careers and parenting responsibilities in a way that fathers rarely do on TV. The couple doesn’t have a designated stay-at-home parent, but instead “we switch on and off,” Ferguson says. “I love that we’re presenting . . . that these struggles exist in any family and we have to just make things work.”
Actresses playing contemporary TV mothers are relieved that their characters are far more complex and varied than the ones they grew up watching. Jennifer Jason Leigh found herself embodying maternal extremes in two recent roles: Elsa, the overprotective mom of a kid on the autism spectrum, in Netflix’s Atypical, and Eleanor, the fragile wife of a sadistic aristocrat, in Patrick Melrose, on Showtime. “[Eleanor is] sort of living in this very beautiful prison, and she loves her son very much, but she’s also terrified of the father and . . . does the best that she can do,” Leigh explains.
“The moms on television are actually changing, which is really wonderful,” says Justina Machado, who plays Penelope Alvarez on Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time, which Lear himself helped produce for the streaming service. A single Latina working mom and Iraq-war veteran, Penelope openly struggles with depression and PTSD as she raises her two children (one of whom came out as a lesbian in Season One). Machado remembers sitcoms of yore “where the moms were just kind of the sounding board”—marginal figures giggling, “Oh, you crazy kids!” Now that there are so many more female show-runners and writers, she says, they “are writing for women as people.”
Frankie Shaw, the show-runner and star of Showtime’s SMILF, complains that TV traditionally put mothers on ridiculous pedestals. She wanted viewers to relate to “how hard it is to be a good mom and how the pressure to live up to this ideal is detrimental and painful.” Her single-mom character, Bridgette Bird, couldn’t be further from the idealized TV mom in an apron and pearls—she masturbates with her child asleep in bed beside her and struggles with an eating disorder.
SMILF is set in blue-collar Boston, and the class consciousness of the original run of Roseanne was something of an inspiration, says Shaw. It was also important to Sara Gilbert, now serving as an executive producer on ABC’s reboot of Roseanne as well as starring in her original role as Darlene Conner. Back in the 90s, Darlene seemed to be the Conner most likely to succeed. But now she’s an unemployed single mom forced to move back in with her parents. “That cycle of poverty is so hard for people to break,” says Gilbert. “A big theme of the show is having these talents, having these ambitions, and not being able to live out your dream.” What happened to Darlene “felt true to the state of our country for many people.”
What unites so many of 2018’s TV moms and dads, sons and daughters, is imperfection. Jack Pearson in NBC’s This Is Us harks back to the golden age of TV fathers: he’s a pillar of strength and a stockpile of wisdom. As played by Milo Ventimiglia, though, Jack also has the flaws and vulnerabilities of a contemporary dad, including a drinking problem. “Jack really wants to widen the perspective of his kids—he wants them to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how it’s impacting other people,” Ventimiglia says. Jack is not perfect, but “he’s well intentioned. . . . Being a good man goes a long way in this day and age.”
This Is Us flashes between decades, a structural innovation that enables viewers to trace how the mother’s and father’s legacies unfold through the lives of their children. “We are all created by our past,” Ventimiglia suggests, “but we all have a point where we can say, ‘Hey, this is what happened in the past. . . .’ And you have a choice in this present moment right now to do something different.”
“I’m really interested in how people behave when they’re alone versus how they are with other people. That’s something that we get into throughout this series. It was like, ‘Let’s just show how hard it is to be twentysomething with a kid and trying to figure out your life. What’s been so amazing—a lot of men actually have related to some of the things that Bridgette has done. I’ve had men come up to me, like, ‘I’ve left my kid in the car while I went to the post office.’”