Reviews > Television
Danny Feld/ABC

Mommy wars

Television | ABC turned a good show about mothers into a parade of politically correct clichés

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

Throughout television history, few shows have focused on what is widely known as the world's toughest, most underappreciated job: mothering. General family shows like The Cosby Show and Everybody Loves Raymond have always been a network staple, and single parents receive more than their due with Garry Unmarried, Two and a Half Men, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Reba, Full House, My Two Dads, One Day at a Time, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and on and on. But with the exception of Roseanne in the '80s, average moms rarely get exclusive attention.

When it began life on the web, In the Motherhood looked likely to fill that gap. Enormously popular, the short, vignette-style storylines starring Leah Remini (best known as Carrie on The King of Queens), comedian Chelsea Handler, and Jenny McCarthy drew more than 5 million viewers per "webisode" to msn.com. And with good reason. Thanks to ideas submitted online by real mothers, the show hilariously and authentically reflected regular moms' lives.

Of the four major characters, only one wasn't married-a fairly accurate statistic for a group of 30-something moms. And the series stuck to the daily travails of raising the under-10 set. Some of the action could get a bit gross, as when Handler's character applied chapstick to her lips only to discover that her son had been using it to a similar purpose on the family cat's backside or when Remini's character had to flee a hardware store after her daughter demonstrated successful toilet training in one of the floor models. But ask any mother and she'll tell you hers can be a gross job sometimes.

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Unfortunately, when ABC picked up the show as a half-hour sitcom that debuted in March, the Writer's Guild of America put a stop to content generated from real moms, claiming it violated their contract with the network. So "real writers" were brought in and all the fun was put to a stop.

First on the chopping block were the realistic characters. With a completely new cast including Cheryl Hines, Megan Mullally, and Jessica St. Clair, the writers turned their focus from recognizable moms to a parade of politically correct clichés. Single rock 'n' roll sexpot with a checkered romantic past and caustic wit-check. White collar, divorced working mom with a manny (that is, a man-nanny)-check. Uptight, holier-than-thou stay-at-home mom who does her children more harm than good-check.

In fact, the new show's biggest change in tone is in its treatment of stay-at-home moms. If In the Motherhood has a villain, it is St. Clair, the sole actress representing this demographic. She makes biting judgmental comments to her sister (Hines) about her lack of a husband, her reliance on child-care workers, and her poor housekeeping-while raising a pair of strangely adult, tense children herself. Hines, as the working mom, fills the bill as protagonist, primarily because she doesn't take the whole mothering thing so seriously. She is, as her manny puts it with an upbeat tone, "like the national guard" of parents-she "trains on the weekend and is ready to step in at a moment's notice."

Such rancor never had a presence in the web version where paid work was a non-topic (it was assumed that some of the women had careers, but the show was about mothering, not working), but it becomes a major plot driver on ABC. Instead of watching Jenny McCarthy have a meltdown because her kid is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, we see Cheryl Hines have a meltdown at the office because she doesn't have time to fit in "third-date sex" before she has to rush home and relieve the babysitter. Real charming stuff those WGA writers are coming up with. It's little wonder that network ratings aren't living up to the show's online popularity, and after two outings ABC has already decided to cut its episode order in half.

If ABC wants In the Motherhood to resonate with moms, its writers should spend more time telling stories that reflect moms' actual lives and less time pitting one motherly stereotype against another. For moms, you can still enjoy the original In the Motherhood on YouTube.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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