One of the relationships at the heart of “Stranger Things” is between Will Byers and his mother, Joyce. On Netflix’s sci-fi 1980s homage, which dropped season two on Friday, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is raising Will (Noah Schnapp) on her own — a particular challenge at the moment, as the boy undergoes PTSD and disturbing flashbacks from his entrapment in the Upside Down.
Their intense bond — along with those between the single mothers and daughters on “Mom” — got me thinking about single mothers on TV. Nuclear families ruled the airwaves in the early days of TV, but since the 1960s, in a reflection of profound changes in our social structures, single parents have become more common — single mothers in particular. A few more are on the way, too, including Frankie Shaw’s Southie single mother on Showtime’s “SMILF” (due Nov. 5). Here’s a collection of some of my favorite single moms — not the “best” ones, by any means, but the ones who’ve brought me the most pleasure.
Selina Meyer, “Veep”
What can I say? I find Selina’s open contempt for and disinterest in her daughter endlessly funny. None of Selina’s relationships are authentic, and I respect the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the show’s writers decided not to alter that for daughter Catherine. Not every mother has that maternal impulse, much as our culture leads us to believe that is the case. Selina, whose own mother treated her poorly, is a narcissist, and Catherine is merely a reflection of her, a prop of sorts. Fortunately, Catherine, played by Sarah Sutherland, has managed to save herself — her ideals, her love life, her integrity. Alas, that’s probably why the media have never taken to her.
Alice Hyatt, “Alice”
Linda Lavin played a widow who winds up waiting tables at Mel’s Diner outside Phoenix. She and her son, Tommy, shared a one-bedroom apartment, where Alice slept on a sleeper couch in the living room. She was practical, hard-working, and resourceful, she was devoted to Tommy’s well-being, and, not least of all, she was funny. At one point, her mother-in-law tries to take Tommy away, but of course our Alice would never let that happen. Lavin now plays a painfully overbearing mother on the “Everybody Loves Raymond” knockoff “9JKL,” but her Alice was the mom to beat.
Julia Baker, “Julia”
“Julia” was quietly groundbreaking, even while it was criticized by many for being too color blind. Diahann Carroll, so elegant, was a black single mother, a Vietnam War widow, raising her son near LA while working as a nurse at an aerospace company. She and her son, Corey, lived in a largely white milieu, where they formed a warm hearth despite the missing person at the dinner table.
Murphy Brown, “Murphy Brown”
Murphy’s single motherhood became political fodder when, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Vice President Dan Quayle cited Murphy’s choice as part of our culture’s “poverty of values.” On many shows, single parenthood was portrayed as a bad thing, or something to be pitied; but here it was portrayed as an empowered decision. Best of all, the show continued to be a workplace drama; Murphy didn’t stop mattering as a professional because she had a child — a child who, right after giving birth, inspired her to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Sam Fox, “Better Things”
Messy realism is the name of the game on this portrait of single working mother Sam — played by show co-creator Pamela Adlon — and her three daughters. The four of them battle hard and love hard, and the show gives us both with humor and grace. Adlon is ferociously protective of her girls, perhaps compensating for her MIA ex-husband, and perhaps because she is simply a high-strung mom who doesn’t have enough pleasure in her private life. Sometimes, this emotionally honest show makes it clear, she feels like she has nothing left to give.
Lorelei Gilmore, “Gilmore Girls”
Played by Lauren Graham, also a noteworthy single mother on “Parenthood,” Lorelei was willing to deal with her own difficult parents in order to help daughter Rory. Love has no pride. I admired the openness of their mother-daughter bond, their caffeinated convos that were dense with pop culture references. Their boundaries weren’t great, but imperfection was part of the beauty of the show. Lorelei pushed Rory to be as independent and motivated as she was.
Hilda Suarez, “Ugly Betty”
It didn’t matter to Hilda, played by Ana Ortiz, that her son, Justin, was a Broadway- and fashion-loving kid who was probably going to be gay. (Ultimately, he was.) She was a fierce protector of her family, a caretaker, and if they were OK, she was OK. She encouraged Justin to be himself and let success follow, a philosophy that seemed present throughout the show’s sweet and amusing four-season run.
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