Saturday, September 29, 2012

TV Moms, Part Four: "Thank You For Being a Friend"

Just before ABC brought Roseanne to the screen, NBC gave us insight in to the lives of four older women living in Miami. This 1985 to 1992 sitcom, like others of its time, took on social issues in addition to showing the viewership the characters' shenanigans, and touched on groups that were otherwise largely ignored by television-- particularly the elderly and the LGBT community. The Golden Girls was immediately a hit, raking in 11 Emmy Awards and staying in the top 10 of Nielsen rankings for six of its seven seasons.

But wait, you're thinking, the women on The Golden Girls weren't moms. There were no kids in the main cast.

Plenty of sitcoms showcased the traditional nuclear family--Mom, Dad, school-aged children with maybe an aunt or grandparent thrown in to spice things up. The Golden Girls, though, took a look at a different and generally ignored demographic: women "of a certain age," whose husbands were either dead or otherwise out of the picture, and whose children were grown.

Blanche Devereaux, Rose Nylund, Sophia Petrillo, and Dorothy Zbornak may not have lived with their children, but parent-child interaction was a pretty significant theme of the show.

Rose deals with the her boyfriend's grown daughter telling her stay away, and we see Rose's oldest daughter struggling with accepting the other three women as her mother's chosen family. Blanche's daughter deals with extreme weight gain, a verbally abusive partner, artificial insemination (which turns out to be more of an issue for Blanche than the daughter), and being a mother on her own. We also learn about Blanche's regrets: on more than one occasion, she mentions wishing that she had been more involved in the lives of her children, citing that even in their twenties, her kids felt more attached to their nanny than they did to her; in fact, Blanche spends most of the series trying to make amends with her children.

While the stories about Rose's and Blanche's relationships with their children are told with care and deal with some interesting issues that are specific to mothers with adult children, there's one mother-daughter pair that gets more attention on the show than any other.

In the pilot episode, Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy are already living together in Blanche's house in Miami (with a not-unstereotypical gay cook character who vanishes by the time the second episode rolls around), when Sophia, Dorothy's mother, shows up at their door saying that Shady Pines, the rest home she'd been living in, had burned down. Because it's television (and because Sophia's pretty much the most entertaining character in the show--or maybe that's just my opinion), Dorothy's other housemates immediately welcome Sophia and invite her to live with them.

Dorothy and Sophia have a relationship that is not often seen in sitcoms. Mothers of adults are rarely seen outside of the bothersome mother-in-law role in television comedies, but in The Golden Girls, Sophia broke that archetype.

Through the show's seven seasons, we see how Sophia and Dorothy's relationship has changed now that Dorothy is an adult and Sophia is elderly. Role-reversal is frequently apparent: we see the traditional "My roof, my rules" discussion with Sophia on the receiving end, Dorothy enforces a curfew for Sophia and worries about her when she goes out with her friends--even following her out after Sophia has a fight with her friend at the beach, and Sophia is constantly asking Dorothy about her allowance and to borrow the car or some money. And it's done with banter, outrageous stories ( Sophia's stories always begin in basically the same way: "Picture it. Sicily--1920"), and no small amount of snark.

But more than just showing this reversal, Dorothy reacts to it. "When did I become my parents' age?" she wonders in one episode. More than once, Dorothy is forced to face Sophia's mortality and has to confront the idea that she will be an orphan--even though Dorothy is over sixty.

Dorothy and Sophia, though they fight and call each other names ("deceitful Sicilian gecko" is one of my personal favorites), manage to cope with the transition from parent and child to friends.

What's most interesting about this to me is that it almost didn't happen. Sophia fits the trope of the Ascended Extra: the creators had intended her to be only a recurring guest on the show, but because of the overwhelmingly positive response to her first appearance, she was written into the main cast, allowing a world of viewers who, perhaps, hadn't given much though to women in their fifties and sixties--much less to the mothers of women in their fifties and sixties--insight into the relationships between mothers and the adults they raised.

Adding in Sophia officially was a great call. Aside from being widely acknowledged as the show's breakout star and becoming one-half of a fantastic comedy duo, as Dorothy's actress Bea Arthur said of Estelle Getty's Sophia following Getty's death in 2008, Sophia opened the door for a different type of mother-daughter relationship to be explored on the small screen.

Check back in the coming weeks. We'll be taking a look at Phylicia Rashad's Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show and at Brett Butler's Grace Kelly from Grace Under Fire.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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