Tell us you didn’t forget Mother’s Day. That you remembered to get a card? Make reservations? Maybe even bought a gift?
If you didn’t, you’re in good company—kids on TV always forget mom’s special day. TV moms can be too perfect (a trend dating back to June Cleaver), too conniving (think Julie Cooper on The O.C.) or too evil (looking at you, Irina Derevko). But today TV is offering up some wonderfully complex, multi-dimensional moms.
So we have a gift for you this Mother’s Day. We’ve rounded up the moms we love on TV—the good, the bad (sorry, Carrie) and the ugly (not so sorry, Elizabeth).
Moms. They can be overprotective, like Beverly Goldberg (Wendi McLendon-Covey, The Goldbergs). Or they can be forceful advocates, like Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver, Speechless). They can demand excellence, like Jessica Huang (Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat). They can hold down a career while battling post-partum depression or a crumbling marriage, like Bow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross, black-ish. They can be frazzled and forget their children’s birthdays, like Frankie Heck (Patrica Heaton, The Middle). They can be exasperated by suburban mom politics, like Katie Otto (Katy Mixon, American Housewife). ABC has cornered the market on family comedies, so it’s not a surprise that the network is home to some of the best moms on TV. If you’re a mom, you may see a little bit of yourself in all of them. And if you’re a daughter or a son, things they do may make you feel like the writers were spying on you when you were growing up. Like Beverly Goldberg, my mom, to this day, can return anything to any store at any time. They make us laugh on a weekly basis. Sometimes they bring a tear to our eye. But more than anything, they represent a wide diversity of what makes a mom. And they have one key thing in common: They love their children and would do anything for them. —Amy Amatangelo
I want to be Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) when I grow up. The woman handles everything that comes at her—an estranged and dying father moving in, her husband’s crippling anxiety attacks, giving birth at home, children who run away, a foster child she adores but is taken from her, a brother-in-law’s drug addiction—with grace and aplomb. Also, have I mentioned how clean her house is? She’s the center of the Pearson home, a firm but loving mom and a devoted spouse who keeps her husband balanced. She also brings a good dose of humor to all the drama that can weigh down the series. There’s probably not a parent out there who can’t relate to a game of “Worst-Case Scenario.” —Amy Amatangelo
As my colleague Amy Amatangelo has noted of Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy), Midge Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and others, neglectful mothers are common enough on TV to merit the term “trope,” and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) may be the worst. In fact, I’d argue that she’s more of a danger to her child than Meredith and Midge are to theirs—no one in their lives ever mentions that their children have vanished, so I have to assume that they’re with some Mrs. Doubtfire down the hall, nursing resentments for the comedy clubs and supply closets of their own adulthoods. Carrie, by contrast, zigzags from obsequious to impatient, from helicopter parenting to long-term abandonment: In the seventh season of Homeland alone, her daughter Franny (Claire and McKenna Keane) is subjected to so much potential trauma that her mother eventually, reluctantly, emotionally gives her up, to the custody of the girl’s Aunt Maggie (Amy Hargreaves). Carrie’s child by the late Nicholas Brody is one of the Homeland writers’ room’s most unnecessary inventions, and it took shunting Franny off to bring the series back from the dead (again), but Carrie’s truly awful parenting is nonetheless worthy of note. It’s like Mommie Dearest but with spies. What’s not to love about that? —Matt Brennan
I guess espionage isn’t the best career path for working mothers. Elizabeth Jennings (the incomparable Keri Russell) is Exhibit B: The chilly KGB operative, posing as a travel agent in the environs of Washington, D.C., is often absent, or otherwise aloof, and even when she’s most engaged, it’s as a demanding, doctrinaire socialist, a sometime-sparring partner, a hardy (and hardened) soul. This, of course, is what makes Elizabeth Jennings perhaps television’s most compelling mother: In a halting phone call to her son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), as she tries and fails to forge a connection, or in her ferocious tutelage of her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), dead set on shaping her in her own image, Elizabeth becomes a heightened version of the flawed, difficult figures most of our parents are. As The Americans nears its end, though—and on the strength of what may be the best final season of all time—it’s hard not to fear that Elizabeth’s comeuppance will come in her role as a mother. (She’s long said she’d lay down her own life with no qualms.) Elizabeth Jennings is as tough as nails, but in her own distinct way, she’s got a soft spot for her kids, like anyone else. —Matt Brennan
For a show that seems on its face to be explicitly devoted to virginity, Jane the Virgin might actually have one of the highest counts of complexly-characterized mothers anywhere on television. There is, of course, the titular Jane (Gina Rodriguez), whose virginity mattered during the first season in specific relation to her accidental artificial insemination and the pregnancy (that, in an important plot point tied to her Catholic faith and personal feminism, she kept) that followed, but there is also her own single mom, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and single grandma, Alba (Ivonne Coll), who together complete the Villanueva Mom Trifecta, plus perfect single mom Petra (Yael Grobglas), with her own artificially begotten twins, Petra’s toxic mom, Magda (Priscilla Barnes), and Raf and Luisa’s even more toxic ex-stepmom, Rose (Bridget Regan). Truly, an abundance of great (though not always good) moms! Which, ultimately, is where much of the series’ strength comes from—by putting so many significant, complex, completely different moms on the screen, motherhood is allowed to transcend stereotype and instead become ultra-specific and individually meaningful. The choices that Jane, or Xo, or Alba, or Petra, or even Rose or Magda make as moms stem from their unique experiences and distinct points of view, and when those points of view clash—as they often did between Alba and Xo in the early seasons regarding Jane, and as they do more frequently now between Jane and Petra as they raise kids who have the same father but are wildly different little people raised in wildly different ways—those clashes become loci of meaty tension and rich character development. And sometimes, when we are very, very lucky, they produce Petra in full Tooth Fairy drag, sneaking into Jane’s house just to make up for those parenting differences. Viva las madres de Jane the Virgin! May you never, ever leave us. —Alexis Gunderson
The ability to become pregnant, carry a child to term and give birth made June (Elisabeth Moss) a Handmaid. But it’s her love and devotion to her daughter Hannah that makes her a mom. The most heart-wrenching moment of the second season comes when June must decide to try to escape, leaving her daughter behind. She knows she cannot help her daughter if she is not free. But leaving her behind also tears her apart. Every decision June made is judged by Gilead—from her affair with a married man to giving her daughter Tylenol and sending her to school. Gilead has an idea of a perfect mom, and June is not it. But, under our eye, she’s perfect. —Amy Amatangelo
In a series that too often appears to be a Rube Goldberg machine—intricacy for intricacy’s sake, more premise than payoff—Thandie Newton’s performance as the indomitable Maeve is the genuine artifact: The awakened android, plotting her escape from the titular theme park, is a stringent test of an actor’s control, and Newton passes it with flying colors. As the erstwhile madam steels herself against Westworld’s technicians during a raid on Sweetwater’s saloon, or cajoles a pair of human functionaries to optimize her intelligence, flashes of anger and intimations of sorrow careen across Newton’s face, only to disappear beneath her serene surface; her highly scripted wit evolves, by degrees, until it courts and sparks with a sort of revolutionary fervor. Underneath it all are Maeve’s memories of her “daughter,” which guide her epic journey in Season Two—and become the most convincing iteration of Westworld’s central theme, which is the abject horror of creating and enslaving “hosts” whose consciousness is almost human. —Matt Brennan
Not since Gilmore Girls have we had such a delightful and real grandmother/mother/daughter relationship portrayed on TV. Lydia (Rita Moreno) is steeped in tradition and heritage, but still open-minded enough to accept the fact that her granddaughter is gay and that her daughter needs medication to deal with her depression. Penelope (Justina Machado) struggles to balance work, school, and raising her children by herself while navigating her first real romantic relationship since her divorce. They share a devotion to each other and to their family. These women are so vibrant and authentic that while watching them you have to remind yourself that they are just characters on TV. —Amy Amatangelo
There’s a moment in “Graduation,” a fittingly tender end to Better Things’ tremendous second season, that seems to be the episode’s (clearly telegraphed) “twist”: The moment Sam (series creator Pamela Adlon) reveals to her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), that her father has bailed on the ceremony. I say “seems” because it’s a sequence—tearful, frank, and ultimately loving, as Sam’s family and friends rally around her distraught daughter—that encapsulates much of what makes Better Things so striking, and it turns out to be not even close to the most breathtaking part of the episode. Such is Adlon’s lovely take on modern motherhood, in which Sam’s fretful morning routine is set to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” and the Season One finale is dedicated to her daughters: Sam’s life on screen hews so closely to the actual rhythms of family life it seems misleading to call it fiction. And yet, I’ve nothing to add to the sleek, surprising modern dance that caps off “Graduation,” except to say that it must qualify as some sort of empathetic magic. Just watch. —Matt Brennan
Sharon’s (Sharon Horgan) house is a disaster (she should totally ask Beth how she does it). There are toys everywhere. She runs out of food. She goes to meetings with spit-up on her (raise your hand if you’ve been there). She struggles to make mom friends—finding she has nothing in common with the playgroup set. And, here’s a surprise, she doesn’t always want to talk about how adorable her children are (except when she does). Being a mom doesn’t define her, but motherhood has irrevocably changed her for the better. —Amy Amatangelo