Mark Harris: The Final Cut

TV's Great Bad Mommies

Mark Harris on television's anti-June Cleavers -- Showtime has an unofficial trilogy on its hands with ''Weeds,'' ''Nurse Jackie,'' and ''The United States of Tara''

Mark Harris on television's anti-June Cleavers

Here are three women whose company I've been enjoying lately. Nancy is a drug dealer working her way up the ladder of felony. Recently, she's seen her older son take up the family business and her middle son get shot, and although she murmurs that she won't make the same mistakes with her new baby — the one fathered by the crime kingpin — I don't think even she finds her promises credible anymore. Jackie manages to keep her two daughters on the straight and narrow, except when she's gobbling illegally obtained pills or cheating on her husband with her supplier. Stay-at-home mom Tara suffers from dissociative identity disorder, so depending on what happens to be rolling across her psyche, which resembles a pool table balanced atop a mechanical bull, she can be herself, June Cleaver, or a hell-raiser. In any case, her attitude is take-me-or-leave-me; the havoc that her personalities wreak is so irreparable that she hardly bothers to apologize.

As a writer who often gripes about how pop culture constricts, pigeonholes, and outright demonizes women, I should have little patience for Showtime's Bad Mommy trilogy of Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. But the truth is, I love them. When wielding my remote, I'll take good characters over good role models every time. The shows — all black comedies about the impossibility of perfect parenting — share a bracing lack of sentimentality about their own (anti) heroines. They invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else's parenting skills. But they also represent an awareness that being a parent means always being subjected to unfairly harsh judgment, not least from your kids and from yourself.

In more sentimental hands, these Bad Mommy shows could succumb to a kind of snobs-versus-slobs sentimentality, following a formula along the lines of: I know I'm a drug dealer/junkie/nutcase, but at least I'm there for my kids when it counts. But the characters played by Mary-Louise Parker, Edie Falco, and Toni Collette never enjoy that kind of easy out. It's probably no coincidence that all three series are the brainchild of women (I'm honored to time-share this space with one, Tara's Diablo Cody). Perhaps it takes women to make comedies about mothers that are both so empathetic and so brutal. They understand that one can feel like (and be) a good or a bad mother on alternate days or in alternate minutes, that one woman's mitigating circumstance can be another's dishonest self-justification, that the question ''Am I being a good mother?'' is one that many women ask and re-ask with every action they take — and can never answer to their own satisfaction.

Most of all, they know that such exquisite tension makes for good comedy, and good drama. As Ayelet Waldman writes in her stingingly candid memoir, Bad Mother, a wise and funny exploration of the byways of parental guilt, an iconic Good Mother must be sure that ''even the act of considering her own needs and desires is engaged in primarily to make her children into better people.'' No wonder Bad Mothers are more interesting: They're human. And no wonder so many women who can't fulfill that impossible standard let themselves enjoy what Waldman identifies as the consolation prize of occasionally ''reveling in the dark exploits of mothers who are worse, far worse, than we are.''

I think that, after their long days of defeats and compromises, Nancy, Jackie, and Tara might enjoy (as everyone should) Mad Men, which offers a jolting reminder that living inside the perfect-mommy stereotype can be every bit as toxic as the guilt or shame of failing to measure up to it. Betty Draper, incarnated with gorgeous refrigerated sadness by January Jones, is, officially, a Good Mother — always there for the kids, getting them to school and the dinner table and the bath and the bed on schedule. She's got the moves down. But to her, they're just moves: Embalmed in resentment and loneliness, she performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted. Now, as we who watch and judge never seem to tire of saying, those are going to be some screwed-up kids. Surely we could do better. At least, it's nice to pretend we could.

Originally posted Aug 31, 2009 Published in issue #1063 Sep 04, 2009 Order article reprints
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