In 'Mom,' a Rich Tradition of Dysfunctional Motherhood

The worst moms you can imagine try to make up for mistakes of the past in the popular CBS series ‘Mom,’ entering its fourth season next month.

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Anna Faris (left) and Allison Janney in a scene from 'Mom.' A dysfunctional view of motherhood.
Anna Faris (left) and Allison Janney in a scene from 'Mom.' A dysfunctional view of motherhood. Credit: Courtesy

One of the most interesting specifics of the human species is its tendency to be – as individuals or factions, be they familiar, tribal, ethnic or national – in a constant struggle. Not only a struggle for survival, which is supposed to be the perennial lot of the fittest (and by the way, fittest, in Darwin’s view, does not necessarily mean strongest, though it often looks that way, but refers to those who manage to fit in, in the best possible way, in any situation). Rather, the struggle in which the human species somehow revels is about who rules, or ruled or misruled in the past. For instance, there is the ongoing combat between the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives; or the eternal struggle over privileges past and present (or the lack thereof and the reasons for that) between parents and children.

This is probably the only territory where women – for ages discriminated against by men for reasons historical and hysterical – have cornered the field since the beginning of time. Generations of human beings of both sexes and all genders tend to blame their mothers for whatever happens – or not – to them. That is, being the nice human beings they are, if something good happens to them, it is either due to their own luck or innate capability, whereas for anything bad that happens to be their lot, mother is to blame.

In a setup devised by the human collective psyche, the mother was initially supposed to be – at least toward the infant – a godlike figure, endowed with unlimited capacity to take good care of it. Small wonder that the mother of God was supposed to be an immaculate figure. But, as nothing can remain immaculate in this sinful world of ours, pretty soon a black mirror image of the Good Mother (or God-Mother) emerged – that of the Monster Mother, suffocating the child with her overbearing love and burdening him or her with the yoke of guilt.

Small wonder that very few men – or fathers – have protested against the glaring lack of equality between the sexes. But one of them, the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott came up with a concept aimed to help them in the minefield of motherhood, namely that of the “good-enough mother.” But what works well in the field of family psychodynamics needs some tweaking (and then some) when it comes to popular entertainment (aka TV series) dealing with the Trinity of the Mother, the Father and their (un)holy Children, both as subject matter and an audience.

Bad mothers

The basic idea, as far as family-based TV series are concerned, was best summed up by Leo Tolstoy, in the famous, often quoted, glibly put but actually rather silly when you think of it in depth, sentence from the opening of “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In other words, when things are good, they tend to be boring. When they are bad, then they get going. Amy Schumer put it nicely in her book “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo” (a publishing deal of more than $8 million, bound to be taken seriously). “Imagine me onstage saying ‘So last night I got in bed with my boyfriend and we held each other in a supportive, caring embrace and then he made sweet love to me.’ The crowd would walk out and I would walk out with them.”

This somewhat rambling preamble about motherhood good, bad or indifferent – but never boring – is meant to introduce you to “Mom,” the CBS TV series, now between its third and fourth season (to begin again on October 27), its first three running on HOT Comedy Central. It was created by Chuck Lorre (of “The Big Bang Theory,” “Two and a Half Men” fame). The moms in it – there are four at last count, and counting – are as bad as the notion of a mother on popular TV can be. They are single, recovering and/or relapsing alcoholics, drug abusers, gamblers, with lax morals and lacking any clear vision as to how their lives and those of their loved ones should go, and where.

In a way, the series is a valiant effort to express, through a popular form of entertainment, what motherhood is commonly expected to be, or how it should function in an ideal world, by portraying it at its most dysfunctional. It focuses on the life of Christy (played by the blonde, petite, blue-eyed and perky Anna Faris), who is trying to put her life in order. Deserted by her own mother early in life, she became a mother at 16, and now her own daughter, Violet, is pregnant at 16 (in season one) – which just goes to show that the sins of the mother, etc. She drank, gambled, used drugs, slept around (she has another child, a boy, and the misfit of a father is still around); so now she tries to mend her ways and make ends meet.

That would have been enough for at least one season of a sitcom – with a lot of running around in an unruly household, AA meetings and various bordering-on-weird characters, but as in any good TV sitcom, it is only the groundwork. The s--- starts hitting the fan (and btw, the series has about 10 million fans per episode) when onto the scene bounces Christy’s mother, Bonnie Plunkett, played with unbounded verve by the tall, long-legged and quirky Allison Janney. Bonnie, who gave birth to Christy at a young age, had her share of drugs – both using and dealing – alcohol and bed partners (of both sexual denominations). She now tries to return to sort of a family fold and compensate her daughter for the checkered past. (Christy’s father, first assumed to be unknown, turns up, becomes involved again with his daughter and her mother, and then bows out of the series; but I can’t tell you how.)

Lorre and his writers manipulate events between tears and laughter, following the wild antics of both mother and daughter. Apart from that, a huge part of the fun in watching the series results from the contrast between the character Janney played for many seasons and for which she earned her share of Emmys – that of C.J. Cregg in “The West Wing,” who is as normative and organized as Bonnie is not. Here it looks as if she and the series producer are trying to outdo each other in making Bonnie unpredictable, unabashed, unscrupulous – and yet uncannily endearing. Janney already has two Emmys for playing Bonnie, as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and has just been nominated for a third.

In season 3, by the way, we get a peek into the even more distant past of this womanly dynasty, when Bonnie’s mother (played by Elaine Burstein) tries to get into the mother-daughter act. There are men in “Mom,” but like in many other series on TV, be they comedy, drama or any kind of procedural, they are incidental. The world of the future, at least on the TV screen, belongs to women. The fact that they can encounter and overcome all the mishaps the writers (some of them, alas, still men) throw their way, and still make themselves, and us, laugh, just proves that they are made of very stern stuff. Oh mother.