Mother Knows Best: TV Moms Kept An Eye Out For All Of Us Over The Decades
Once upon a simpler time, TV tried to convince us that father knows best. We knew better.
Take it from TV’s most authentic mother, Harriet Nelson, the serene and lovably capable mom who raised her actual sons, David and Ricky, in front of a nation’s eyes. This was a TV family that felt real for a reason. (The set of their TV home was modeled on the Nelsons’ own living quarters.)
Harriet took pains in a 1954 TV Guide Magazine interview to point out one significant difference between the fictional world of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66) and their real life. On set, Ozzie could boss her and the boys around as the show’s director. At home, she was in charge. (Though Ozzie piped up that “Harriet is a softy and she leaves the discipline up to me.”)
Idealized mothers were among TV’s first breakout characters, including Jewish matriarch Molly (Gertrude Berg) of The Goldbergs (1949-54), transferring her loyal radio audience to the new medium. Mama (1949-56), based on the popular stage play and movie I Remember Mama, starred Peggy Wood (later The Sound of Music’s Mother Abbess) as the gentle but firm caregiver of a Norwegian American family in 1910 San Francisco. From the beginning, moms on TV came in all shapes, sizes and temperaments.
None were as wacky as Lucille Ball’s alter ego, Lucy Ricardo, the madcap heroine of the smash hit I Love Lucy (1951-57). In the show’s second season, she announced her pregnancy. No one could actually say the word “pregnant,” but after some balking from sponsors and the network — an event recently dramatized in the movie Being the Ricardos — Lucy and Ricky (Desi Arnaz) became proud parents of Little Ricky.
In a master stroke of publicity, they timed the birth, via cesarean section, of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV to occur on the same Monday (Jan. 19, 1953) when the childbirth episode, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” aired. It was a media phenomenon, attracting the largest TV audience up to that time (44 million, with a whopping 71.7 Nielsen rating) and eclipsing the viewership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration the following day.
Cool, Collected Moms
The 1950s were a boom time for TV, and for TV families. The TV mom we most readily identify with in this period is also the most put-together: June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) of Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), as cool and crisp as a Hitchcock blonde, but much sweeter. Her string of tasteful pearls never seemed to get in the way of housework or dispensing pearls of wisdom to her two sons, Wally (Tony Dow) and Theodore “the Beaver” (Jerry Mathers). June’s contemporaries, Donna Reed of The Donna Reed Show (1958-66) and Jane Wyatt as Margaret Anderson in Father Knows Best (1954-60), were also paragons of wholesomeness, forever keeping the home fires burning with their maternal warmth.
One TV mom who literally kept the fire lit at home was Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grassle), the frontier pioneer soulmate of Charles “Pa” Ingalls (Michael Landon) on Little House on the Prairie (1974-83), adapted from the writings of her future-author daughter Laura (Melissa Gilbert). Caroline was something of an anomaly for the Western genre, where women who weren’t entrepreneurs like Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty didn’t always fare well — in Landon’s previous series, Bonanza, he and the Cartwright brothers each had a different mom, all dead.
Another notable exception was movie star Barbara Stanwyck, whose powerful portrayal of whip-wielding ranch boss Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley (1965-69) revealed that widows were also no slouch at raising a family (including future stars Lee Majors and Linda Evans) in the 1870s Wild West of California.
Out Of This World (& Otherworldly) Moms
They all had it comparatively easy when you consider the challenges facing Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart, formerly Timmy’s mom on Lassie), who found it was no picnic to be Lost in Space (1965-68) with her family aboard the Jupiter 2 and wrangling three kids, including the perpetually-in-danger Will Robinson (Billy Mumy), through the galaxies.
More earthbound, but otherworldly in her casual glamour and extraordinary gifts, was that epitome of 1960s wish fulfillment: Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, the elegant domesticated witch of Bewitched (1964-72). She was TV’s Grace Kelly, if the Princess of Monaco had been able to make magic happen with the impish twitch of a nose. It remains confounding that husband Darrin (Dick York, later Dick Sargent) preferred her not to use her powers, but once they started having children with their own special traits — first Tabitha (who got her own spinoff), then Adam (who didn’t) — he was rather outnumbered.
Mom Gets Real
The most groundbreaking TV mom of the 1960s was on Julia (1968-71), the story of Vietnam War widow Julia Baker, who moves to Los Angeles with her son for a new start — and potential romance — finding work as a nurse. It was low-key in every aspect but one: the casting of Diahann Carroll as the first Black female lead of a comedy series in a non-stereotyped role. “It is time to present the Black character primarily as a human being,” she told TV Guide Magazine in 1968. “I want to do something that deals with a Black person in the everyday situation of ups and downs, good and bad.”
With the 1970s came more revolution, centered within the combustible Bunker household of All in the Family (1971-79), where bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) ruled from his favorite chair, often telling his put-upon “dingbat” wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) to “stifle.” Not that she listened. The peacemaker between Archie and daughter Gloria’s (Sally Struthers) liberal “meathead” husband Mike (Rob Reiner), Edith was a flustered voice of love and tolerance, a mom to us all.
The Norman Lear hit generated successful spinoffs introducing more memorable mothers reflecting their times:
Good Times (1974-79), where Esther Rolle as Maude’s former maid redefined the image of a domestic servant as the show depicted robust family life in the projects of Chicago’s South Side.
The Jeffersons (1975-85), featuring Isabel Sanford as the Bunkers’ one-time neighbor Louise “Weezy” Jefferson. Much like Edith, she acted as the down-to-earth foil of blustery husband George (Sherman Hemsley) and mother to Lionel (Mike Evans, also Damon Evans), enjoying upwardly mobile life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The ’70s was such a turbulent decade it’s little wonder that audiences also took comfort in nostalgia, with shows like the moving Depression-era drama The Waltons (1972-81), with Michael Learned as devout and principled mother Olivia keeping a large brood fed and disciplined. Providing a sunny reflection of bygone TV mothers, Marion Ross gave Mrs. C of the 1950s romp Happy Days (1974-84) a knowing twinkle suggesting depths beyond her happy-housewife surface. (Who else could get away with calling Fonzie “Arthur”?)
A throwback to an earlier age of antiseptic family comedy, The Brady Bunch (1969-74) iconically and unironically depicted a squeaky-clean blended family of six kids in which father Mike (Robert Reed) and mother Carol (a relentlessly perky Florence Henderson) knew best. They also shared a bed together, unlike earlier TV married couples. (Try convincing anyone that Rob and Laura Petrie of the 1960s classic The Dick Van Dyke Show slept separately. How then to explain little Ritchie?) The Brady family’s Friday-night neighbor, The Partridge Family (1970-74), showcased a cool musical mom with Shirley Jones as Shirley Partridge, balancing single-motherhood with accompanying her kids (including teen idol David Cassidy, her real-life step-son) in a touring pop band.
’80s And ’90s Moms Are True (And Blue)
A renaissance of family TV comedy in the 1980s was led by The Cosby Show (1984-92), where Phylicia Rashad’s Clair Huxtable brought sophistication to the maternal archetype, wielding a professional lawyer’s logic upon her rambunctious household and her sheepishly wry husband, Cliff (Bill Cosby, back when he was still “America’s dad”). On the popular Growing Pains (1985-92), Joanna Kerns as Maggie Seaver embodied the working-mom career-woman ideal, resuming work as a reporter while leaving husband Jason (Alan Thicke) in his home psychiatry office to deal with the scene-stealing kids.
One of the most popular family comedies of the 1990s, Home Improvement (1991-99) could have been titled Mother Knows Best, as the resourceful Jill Taylor (Patricia Richardson) not only nurtured a household full of boys while pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, but also constantly had to keep an eye on her buffoonish man-child husband Tim (Tim Allen).
Moms continue to shine on TV — one of the best 21st century comedies was even titled Mom (2013-21), starring Emmy winner Allison Janney and Anna Faris as mother-daughter recovering addicts — but no tribute would be complete without a salute to The Simpsons’ Marge Simpson, of the blue beehive and seemingly inexhaustible patience toward unruly son Bart and impossibly clueless husband Homer.
Through a parade of more than 700 episodes since 1989, with no end in sight, Marge may be the TV mother to end them all. She once offered to show daughter Lisa her “shattered dreams” box — it’s upstairs in her “disappointment closet” — but we know that like all of her peers, she wouldn’t trade her family for the world. Or even a free Netflix subscription.