In honor of Mother’s Day, I humbly offer this tribute to my favorite — and funniest — sitcom moms since the turn of the 21st century.
Sitcom moms from television’s earlier decades (or “Golden Age” if you insist), are celebrated for reasons that are becoming increasingly difficult to fathom with the passage of time. The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and other sappy sitcoms from that era may have featured prim & proper moms who knew their way around nuturing their offspring (any punishments were usually left to the dads), but let’s face it, those pearl-necklaced, child-bearing humans were not terribly funny characters.
Only in more recent decades have a number of televisions’s funniest and most eccentric mothers been given the opportunity to shine, in all of their dysfunctional glory. Here then, are my personal faves, in chronological order:
Lois — Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006). Perhaps no mother in sitcom history has instilled the Fear of God in her children quite like Lois, as played by Jane Kazmarek (by the way, Malcom’s family surname is never revealed throughout the series’ run). On a daily basis, Lois deals with three mischievous and destructive boys at home (and another in a military academy), close in age and often deliberately getting themselves into trouble to suit their own immediate needs (including Malcolm, who, with his genius-level I.Q., should know better). Husband Hal prefers to avoid confrontation at all costs, but Lois doesn’t think twice about using various acts of emotional — and sometimes physical — torture on her beloved sons.
Her volcanic temper is legendary among family members, friends, and neighbors (who have permanent “For Sale” signs displayed on their front lawns). The boys always know they’ve gone too far when her face indicates an oncoming explosion of rage, and subsequent harsh punishment. How Jane Kazmarek did not win multiple Emmys for her role is a question for the Ages.
Virginia Chance — Raising Hope (2010–2014), played by Martha Plimpton. This hilarious series never received the attention it deserved, but is worth seeking out on DVD or elsewhere. It centers on the Chance family, especially teenage son Jimmy, who decides to raise his baby girl Hope, born out of his brief fling with a twenty-something girl named Lucy. She gave birth to Hope in prison, while waiting to be executed for her actions as a psychotic serial killer (and yes, within the context of the show, it is funny). Jimmy’s mom Virginia and father Burt are happy to help, and we know Hope will be raised in a loving family. The Chances are all well-meaning, but their combined I.Q.s don’t add up to very much. Martha Plimpton is fabulous as Virginia, who considers herself to have the most common sense, despite her own habit of mangling historical facts as well as the English language itself. Plimpton received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her performance.
Claire Dunphy — Modern Family (2009–2020) played by Emmy-winning Julie Bowen. Anyone who knows me also knows that Modern Family has won the battle for my heart as my All-time Favorite Sitcom (narrowly surpassing The Honeymooners and All in the Family). As Claire Dunphy — business executive, mother of three, and wife of child-like husband Phil — Bowen is a marvel to behold as Claire, seamlessly juggling her mix of street-smarts and total geekiness, and equally adept at getting one family member out of a crisis while landing herself in her own cringe-worthy predicament. As a comic actress, Bowen’s eyes can convey anything from fear, to skepticism, to embarrassment, to quiet desperation, even as the rest of her face retains the frozen smile of a happy mom and loving wife.
Frankie Heck — The Middle (2009–2018), played by Patricia Heaton. Like the Chance family on Raising Hope, the Hecks are a lower middle-class family (emphasis on ‘lower’), and have long ago stopped bothering to present themselves as otherwise. Their home is physically falling apart at the seams, yet somehow offers its own shabby coziness. Frankie, as mother of three teens, and wife of laconic husband Mike, keeps a kitchen drawer full of coupons (most of which have long since expired) and has been nearly worn down by life’s everyday struggles and setbacks. Still, she tries her best to muster enthusiasm for her kids’ rare accomplishments, and clings to the little things in life that bring her some degree of solace — like watching her favorite TV mini-series or royal wedding before the cable TV service is discontinued for unpaid bills.
Beverly Goldberg — The Goldbergs (2013-present), played by Wendi McLendon-Covey.
Based on the program creator’s real-life family (the show uses their real names and incorporates original home video clips), mother Beverly is a first-class yenta and the ultimate loving, smothering mom who insists on calling her offspring by embarrassing terms of endearment, even in the presence of their friends (as opposed to husband Murray, who commonly refers to the kids as “morons”). Bev has no qualms referring to her youngest son Adam as her favorite, while his siblings Erica and Barry look on. McLendon-Covey (a Reno 911alumnus) is a whirlwind of motherly nurturing run amuck, determined not to let the ways of the world hurt her kids, as she employs whatever means possible to slow down their growth and eventual exit from the nest.
Whether she’s interfering with her kids’ life in school, browbeating the principal into submission for any perceived slight or reprimand he’s given them (usually deserved), Bev can be counted on to go too far, thus sabotaging her own best intentions, but is eventually forgiven for her motherly zealousness by her exasperated but understanding family.
Bonnie Plunkett — Mom (2013-present) Allison Janney has won multiple awards, including an Emmy, for her comic portrayal of a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser as she, her daugher Christie (also in recovery, played by Anna Faris), struggle to stay sober and make something of their lives. We see them meet regularly at AA meetings with their close friends and sponsor, as they seek happiness in healthy, meaningful relationships. Sounds like a downer? Nah, it’s a hoot. Really. Creator/producer Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) has the characters tackle tough personal issues, and suffer occasional setbacks, but the show sustains its humor throughout, which is quite a remarkable achievement.
Alas, as of this writing, Mom is about to air its final episode, and Anna Faris abruptly left the program just before filming began for the season. However, it can be easily found in syndication, and is likely to enjoy a long after-life in reruns.
Katie Otto — American Housewife (2016-present). Katy Mixon made her mark as the stoner sister on Mike & Molly before getting the lead in this ever-improving sitcom. The Otto family resides in wealthy, trendy, and snooty Westport, Connecticut (due to husband Greg’s college teaching job), where they stick out like a family of sore thumbs — for they are neither wealthy, nor trendy.
The pudgy, unkempt Katie, however, is no pushover, and remains determined to push back against the town’s snobbery (while attempting to keep her own dignity intact),clashing with younger, slimmer trophy wives who look down their reconstructed noses at her strictly middle-class ways. She also uses her natural cynicism and tough exterior to keep her own kids in line — and sentiment at bay — whenever she suspects they’re in the midst of putting a scheme over on her. Even when dealing with the kids’ various problems, Katie encourages them not to be swayed by their classmates’ more privileged lifestyles.
A truly mixed bag of TV sitcom mothers, to be sure, but each is hilarious in her own way, and a treat to watch for her own particular idiosyncrasies and methods of attaining some semblance of appreciation from her family. Do yourself a favor and check them out!
Until next time…
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