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The Golden Age of “Struggle Parent” TV

From ‘Stranger Things’ to ‘Black-ish’ to ‘SMILF,’ it is a great time for well-intentioned, constantly overwhelmed (and occasionally plain crude) TV parents

“It feels like I’m being murdered every day in a vague way that no one could prosecute anyone for,” groans Pamela Adlon, playing the single mother to three volcanic daughters on FX’s sweetly hostile Better Things. “Nobody wants to have kids—they’re just a thing that happens to you, and then you carry that burden with you until you die,” counsels Constance Wu, lethally unfiltered mother to an Asian American family resettled in mid-’90s Orlando on ABC’s mostly cuddly Fresh Off the Boat. “You did this to me!” Frankie Shaw coos to her toddler son, smooshing her stomach rolls in the bathtub on Showtime’s crude and surrealist new comedy SMILF. It’s enough to bring even Michael Rapaport, affable father to an autistic teenager on Netflix’s whimsy-packed Atypical, to the brink of tears.

Every parent on every parenting show, no matter how caustic and exhausted he or she (but usually she) may appear, takes great pains to assert that it’s all worth it in the end. But it’s the existential tragedy of raising kids that generates all the comedy. The current gold standard in this “Take My Children, Please” realm remains Catastrophe, the acidic BBC/Amazon rom-com in which Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney curse extravagantly at one another and turn every last trip to the playground into its own miniature apocalypse. (The third season premiered earlier this year, and at a quick six half-hour episodes per year, it’s the perfect length for harried real-life parents with neither the logistical nor emotional bandwidth to binge-watch 10 hours of Mindhunter.)

But newer, even cruder options abound. Pop culture has always portrayed the family home, whether that’s a fleabag apartment or a virtual mansion, as something between a zoo and an insane asylum, and the parents themselves as benevolent gods one minute and total fuckups the next. But nowadays the personalized visions have sharpened, and the stakes for bawdiness and fuckup-type behavior have dramatically risen. Raising kids has only gotten harder in the internet age, and the penalties for doing it wrong more severe. (After all, your kid might grow up now and make a prestige-TV show, or at least a high-profile YouTube account, detailing what a lousy influence you were.) This new breed of Struggle Parents is struggling more than ever, and articulating that anxiety more painfully than ever.

It’s terrible, and it’s also great; it’s pure, and it’s grody as hell. And the newest/grodiest of this new breed of parenting shows is SMILF, which premieres Sunday with one of the better pilot episodes of 2017. (The title stands for Single Mother I’d Like to Fuck, and is the worst thing about the show by a wide margin.) Shaw, perhaps best known as Elliot’s drug-dealer girlfriend in the first season of Mr. Robot, is your creator, director, and star, spinning her Sundance-feted 2015 short film into a series of surrealist vignettes about a poor aspiring Boston actress named Bridgette with a son named after Larry Bird. She is introduced playing pickup basketball to the strains of “Wait (The Whisper Song).”

Close-up of Bridgette wearing a purple shirt Showtime

Soon, Bridgette is discussing vagina circumference with both her gynecologist and, later, Connie Britton as a rich, unmoored housewife named Ally. She butts heads with her hard-boiled mother, Tutu (played by Rosie O’Donnell), who hisses things like, “Don’t you fuckin’ call me crazy” in a Southie accent. After meeting her ex’s new girlfriend, she Googles “Does meeting dad’s girlfriend fuck up your kid,” then masturbates to photos of said new girlfriend, precariously balancing her vibrator and her laptop in a genuinely inspired bit of physical comedy. And she leaves her sleeping son home alone for a mad dash to the corner store for baked goods, which in turn leads to a disastrous sexual encounter that is definitely not her last. She loves her son dearly and barely has the slightest grip on the rest of her life; the hidden message of SMILF and most shows like it is that the stronger and purer your love, the weaker your grip. The more you get it right, the messier it gets.

The pilot’s vibe is grimy and warm, with Shaw’s lewd high jinks nicely balanced by all the maternal snuggliness. Things get a little wobblier in SMILF’s next few episodes, with the lewdness pushing into surreal and overwhelming new dimensions: A Harvard student inadvertently ejaculates on his own face, Shaw’s good friend starts a lucrative sideline as an ice-cream-guzzling camgirl, and the dream sequences range from regal pornographic fantasies to grocery-store ballroom dancing. Plus, Shaw might try out for the WNBA. There’s a bleary-eyed disorientation to this, but that’s a crucial part of the child-rearing experience, too.

At its sharpest (and sharpest-elbowed), SMILF echoes another bawdy single-mom comedy, Better Things, which has quickly and elegantly evolved into a paragon of the form. Adlon is the star, cocreator and cowriter (alongside Louis C.K.), and in Season 2, the sole director. She plays Sam Fox, a successful and fantastically blunt actress raising three daughters in a fancy house in L.A.; a veteran of both King of the Hill and Louie, Adlon’s voice is a majestic three-ring circus of growls and rasps and somehow deeply maternal moans, like a warm embrace from a cactus. Her motherly discourse ranges from “I need you to be mean to me when I’m old so I don’t feel so bad about how mean I am to your grandmother now” to “Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone” to “Middle-school girls are fucking disgusting! Bitches! Bitches!” She is the best mom on TV precisely because she is also the scariest.

Sam Fox and one of her daughters in the car FX

Better Things is not plotless, exactly, but it doesn’t bother much with sweeping season-long arcs or Very Special Episode melodrama. It hints at major revelations, but is in no hurry to deliver them. (Sam’s precocious middle daughter, Frankie—who is prone to saying things like, “Hey Siri, what’s the difference between the white man’s burden and the black man’s burden?”—might be struggling with her gender identity.) Sam’s ex (and the girls’ father) materializes a few times but gets very little backstory; new love interests occasionally wander into the frame but are just as apt to wander back out again with no explanation, and those guys are the lucky ones. Here is how Sam breaks up with someone; here is how she deals with an unwanted advance from a suitor named Jeff.

There are cringe-comedy overtones here, but not the sort of cheap rug-pulling reversals where a tender moment—Sam buys her petulant and overwhelmed oldest daughter a business suit, or gives a rousing speech at a modest women’s empowerment rally—is immediately undercut by some unforeseen humiliation. The show lets the sweetness breathe, and the simmering rage, too. When Sam lashes out after feeling underappreciated and demands that her daughters hold a eulogy for her right now, so they can say all the nice things they’re saving for after she’s dead, the result is an exquisite mix of petulance and tear-jerking gentleness, the prettiest and thorniest ugly cry imaginable. “Even when I do my best, it ain’t ever enough,” Sam lamented at the end of the first season, and she’s right, and that’s both the tragedy and the triumph here: The one human on TV who’s gotten closest to figuring this balance out only knows enough to know that she doesn’t really know anything. But her best is still a fearsome and inspiring thing to behold.

You can find struggle parents everywhere on TV, of course. The second season of Stranger Things alone has a nice spectrum, with their background chatter ranging from the dull-witted (“So if your friend jumps off a cliff, you’re gonna jump, too?”) to the embarrassing (“Are you constipated again?”). In the leading roles, Winona Ryder’s tremulous and vengeful helicopter mom pairs nicely with David Harbour’s Peak Dad affection for Jim Croce. Even poor Barb’s devastated folks get some screen time, and something akin to #justice.

If the Upside Down strikes you as too on the nose as a metaphor for struggle parenting, elsewhere on Netflix, there is Atypical, which premiered in August with a black-diamond-difficulty premise (autistic teenager seeks girlfriend) that has skeeved out some viewers with firsthand experience on this topic. There is a tremendously off-putting Scrubs-like cutesiness to this show that mixes poorly with your likely unease about how it’s handling the accuracy issue. But it might be worth watching for Mom and Dad alone.

As the autistic teenager’s frazzled parents, Michael Rapaport and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both just slightly out of their element in an oddly effective way. You can sense Leigh inwardly rebelling against the usual ditzy-to-neurotic spectrum; Rapaport delivers his fatherly advice (“Some people are just assholes”) with a familiar bluster but an unfamiliar gravity, getting even ruddier than usual and trying to connect in a way he’s never connected before. His discomfort is palpable, very relatable, and quite winsome.

But for awkward family dynamics with maximum relatability—and an ever-growing sense of total chaos and hopelessness—ground zero will always be the plain old network sitcom, and ABC alone has a full range of options in terms of tone, ambition, and quality. There is the enormously goofy ’80s homage The Goldbergs, which stars Jeff Garlin (who cheerily grumps around like he walked directly off the set of Cheers) and Wendi McLendon-Covey, who valiantly shrugs off a disastrous perm and at one point types up this résumé.

Beverly Goldberg’s résumé with the only job listed as “Mom, 1968-present” ABC

It’s a little garish and a little grim and a lot regressive, but it more or less manages to do for Alf what Stranger Things does for E.T. Now in its ninth and final season, The Middle is a similar throwback despite its modern-day setting, set in working-class Indiana and somewhat erratically mixing Roseanne’s blunt sourness with Malcolm in the Middle’s cornball defiance. It probably gets the closest to mirroring Real Life, but that can put an awfully hard cap on how much delight it can generate.

But ABC’s three crown jewels are Modern Family (now more retro than modern, but also less irritating now that it’s no longer dominating the Emmys), Fresh Off the Boat, and Black-ish. Constance Wu effortlessly keeps Fresh Off the Boat afloat, from her prickly-goofball rapport with TV husband Randall Park to her Wheel of Fortune prowess to the precise dead-seriousness with which she delivers lines like “I’ve only had half a beer, but the voice that criticizes me constantly has gone quiet.” Her partner in TV-mom excellence is Black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross, who can span the standard ditzy-to-neurotic spectrum with ease, and also handle the show’s loftier and more serious fare, whether the topic is the Trump election or Juneteenth or postpartum depression. Nobody handles Very Special Episode melodrama with more grace; nobody better articulates the fact that having it all inevitably means losing all your marbles.

Ross’s easy banter with both her precocious kids and Anthony Anderson as her bonehead husband is far warmer and more whimsical than anything you’ll find on Better Things or SMILF or Catastrophe. But there’s still a palpable kinship there, a very distinct mixture of Totally Enthralled and Totally Fed Up that is still the most relatable parenting posture of them all. She makes motherhood look exasperating and thankless until she kicks up enough of a fuss to get her family to notice her enough to thank her. But both she and her show are worth eulogizing long before they’re gone. The best parents on TV don’t make it look easy, exactly—it’s more that they make it look impossibly hard, but also like one of the only things truly worth doing.