Movie Mom: The Best TV Moms

June 4th, 2010 by Nell Minow

Beliefnet’s Nell Minow’s picks television’s top matriarchs.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project


I've written about great movie mothers before (more great movie moms here). The Wall Street Journal's article on a return to the portrayal of parents as sensible and caring inspired me to celebrate some of my favorite television moms.

Marion Cunningham (Marion Ross) on "Happy Days" was always there with a wholesome snack and even more wholesome advice. "Mrs. C" was the only one allowed to call Fonzie by his real first name. Broadcast during a time of great change for women, the show was a reminder that the traditional role was also of great value and worthy of respect.

Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashād) on "The Cosby Show" was the elegant and almost always unflappable successful attorney and mother of five, as bemused by her husband (far from unflappable) as by her children.

Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) on "The Brady Bunch" always seemed as sweetly unaware of the show's cheesiness as she was of the possible problems that arise in blended families. She managed to cope with six children even through such catastrophes as a visit from Davy Jones and Jan's weird wig.

Margaret Anderson (Jane Wyatt) on "Father Knows Best" was the quintessential 1950's ideal of a mother and homemaker, always loving and supportive of her family. Often, she was the one who really knew best.

Julia Baker (Diahann Carroll) on "Julia" was a pioneer -- a single working mother and the first in more than a decade with a black performer in the lead role. Julia was a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam. I still remember her job interview over the phone in the first episode. With some apprehension, she tells the doctor she is black and he jokingly asks if she has always been black or just decided to become black since it was so fashionable. When her son Corey met the white boy who would become his best friend, he said, "Your mom's colored!" Corey replied, "Yeah, so am I," and the boy said, "You are?" That set the tone for a series that was if not entirely frank about race at least more upfront about it than audiences were used to in 1968 and yet still comfortably sit-comy.

Marge Simpson (voice of Julie Kavner) on "The Simpsons" is the ever-good-humored center of the family. Her character is both inspired by and a gentle parody of 1950's sit-com mothers. While craziness goes on all around her, she is almost always the moral center of the family, eternally devoted to her often-idiotic husband and naughty son.

Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong) in "My So-Called Life" supported the family economically as well as emotionally. In a series that focused on the adolescent struggles of the teen-age daughter (Claire Danes), Patty came across both as a strong, understanding believably conflicted woman. She understood the importance of allowing her daughter to be independent, even make her own mistakes, but when things went too far she did not hesitate to step in.

Lorelei Gilmore (Lauren Graham) on "The Gilmore Girls" was a teenager when her daughter Rory was born. Rory was a teenager when the show began, and part of its appeal was the close and understanding relationship between the two of them. For most of the series, the mother-daughter conflict was kicked up a generation as Lorelei connected with her estranged (and wealthy) parents to help pay for Rory's tuition. The most adorable mother-daughter dialogue in television history was this show's quippy, intensely culturally aware repartee.

Olivia Walton (Michael Learned) on "The Waltons" is based on the real-life mother of series creator Earl Hammer, Jr. Olivia combined resolve with patience in raising seven children during the Depression, and part of what made the show so heartwarming was her ability to engage with each person in the family in a way that was always completely present and loving.

Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) on "The Andy Griffith Show" is one of the best examples of indispensable mother-figures and mother-substitutes we love on television and in real life. When Sheriff Andy Taylor needed someone to help raise his son, Opie, he called in Aunt Bee, who arrives in the first episode and quickly becomes a part of the household. Other than a problem with her pickles, she is known for her excellent home cooking and other domestic skills and for her devotion to Andy and Opie.