The Saturday Evening Post’s “TV’s Greatest” series is an ongoing look at the greatest characters, songs, and moments in the history of TV. Also see “TV’s Greatest: Best “Best Friends,”“TV’s Greatest: The 20 Best Supernatural Detectives,” and “TV’s Greatest: Lawyers.”
With Mother’s Day just around the corner, it’s time to celebrate the best moms from TV history. Of course, not every mother is a shining paragon of child-rearing, and for that reason, it’s also time to take a look at the worst ones, too. Here’s your 10 Best and 5 Worst.
TV’s 10 Best Moms
10. Kitty Forman (Debra Jo Rupp)
That ’70s Show (1998-2006); That ’90s Show (TBA)
Nurse Kitty Forman is one of that special strain of TV moms that becomes stand-in mother to various friends of their kids. Though Kitty often struggles with her daughter, Laurie, she gets along well with her son, Eric, and acts as den mother to his pals. She even takes in Eric’s friend, Hyde, when he needs a place to stay, and is a surrogate host mother to exchange student Fez. Plus, anybody that can put up with the temperament of her husband, Red Forman, deserves an award.
9. Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty)
The Golden Girls (1985-1992); The Golden Palace (1992-1993)
Bea Arthur played a wise-cracking TV mom on Maude, so it’s appropriate that her Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls got one of the all-time great smartass mothers in the diminutive form of Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo. Sophia can be genuinely sweet and caring when the occasion called for it, but she usually offers her daughter her input in the form of withering one-liners. That could seem rude or tiresome from some moms, but not Sophia.
8. Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grassle)
Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982); Little House: The Last Farewell (1984)
You can be forgiven if your singular memory of Ma Ingalls is cooking, but over the course of the series, the character unveils a lot of complexity. Caroline is well-educated, stealthily witty, and left a wealthy family to marry Charles. Over time she deals with serious injury, the loss of an infant son, and, well, Mrs. Oleson. Caroline and Charles also open their home to three adopted children (Albert, James, and Cassandra). Later in the series, Caroline helps run Nellie’s restaurant, adding yet another job to her long to-do list.
7. Marion Cunningham (Marion Ross)
Love, American Style (1972); Happy Days (1974-1984); Joanie Loves Chachi (1982-1983)
The Love, American Style episode “Love and the Happy Days” acted as a backdoor pilot for a family nostalgia sitcom set in the ’50s. Marion Ross played the mom, Marion Cunningham, and, along with Ron Howard and Anson Williams, made the jump to the main cast of the spin-off. The rest is TV history, as the usually impeccably dressed “Mrs. C” becomes the surrogate mom for son Richie’s friends, including The Fonz, and daughter Joanie’s friends, too. When Joanie gets a spin-off, Mrs. C. pays a visit. Ross herself, being a world-champion good sport, even reprised her role in a voice-acting capacity on an episode of The Family Guy.
6. Doctor Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross)
Black-ish (2014-2022); Grown-ish (2018-present); Mixed-ish (2019-2021)
Rainbow Johnson has one of the more fully-developed backgrounds of modern television characters. Portions of her childhood are seen on the Black-ish spin-off, Mixed-ish, which documents the early life of her and her siblings as they navigate being bi-racial kids in the 1980s (Ross serves as narrator). Rainbow grows up to be an anesthesiologist; she has four kids with her husband, ad exec Dre. A calmer presence than her husband, Rainbow is able to better connect with their nerdy son, Junior.
5. Olivia Walton (Michael Learned)
The Waltons (1972-1980); four sequel TV films from 1982 to 1997
By the time of the Great Depression, Olivia Walton was mother to seven children (an eighth died at birth). Olivia’s character is largely defined by her faith, to the point where she often assigns the kids to read particular Bible passages if they get in trouble. She has a lot of challenges over the course of the series, including a miscarriage and battles with both polio and tuberculosis. A talented artist in her youth, Olivia eventually becomes a teacher during the course of the several TV movie sequels.
4. June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley)
Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963); TV movie Still the Beaver (1983); The New Leave It to Beaver (1983-1989)
It’s true that June Cleaver has become a frequent punchline for representing a mostly imaginary image of a 1950s mom vacuuming in pearls and high heels. But the character herself radiates one major quality: sympathy. June seems to truly understand that her kids are, in fact, kids, and even when they do things like letting a monkey loose in the house, she tries to approach them on a human level. In the 1980s sequel series, widowed June is a member of the City Council, showing that there was much more to June than making elaborate daily feasts.
3. Florida Evans (Esther Rolle)
Maude (1972-1974); Good Times (1974-1977; 1978-1979)
Esther Rolle originated the role of Florida Evans on Maude, but that series didn’t delve into her family life. That was saved for Good Times, which is the first spin-off of a spin-off in TV history (as Maude spun from All in the Family). Much of the series deals with Florida trying to make the best of the family’s low-income situation while serving as a moderating influence for her husband, James, and their three kids. When James dies in a car accident, Florida puts on a brave face, not letting the kids see her own devastation. Florida leaves for a time to marry Carl Dixon, but returns to the family after Dixon’s death from lung cancer. Through everything, Flordia tries to remain the strong center of the family.
2. Carol Brady (Florence Henderson)
The Brady Bunch (1969-1974); The Brady Bunch Hour (1976-1977); The Brady Girls Get Married (1981); The Brady Brides (1981); A Very Brady Christmas (1988); The Bradys (1990)
We could recount how the former Carol Martin blended her family with Mike Brady’s, but that theme song explanation has been stuck in the collective unconscious for over 50 years. Carol Brady starts off TV life as a mom in transition, learning how to parent stepsons while also dealing with three very different daughters. Carol has a generally sunny disposition and is always up for a talent show. That shines through when the Bradys make their strange metamorphosis to TV variety show in the Disco Era. Carol plays a major role in helping everything work out when Jan and Marcia each get married. She also begins a career in real estate and remains a sage voice of council when the family takes an equally strange turn into drama in 1990. She’s remembered as a perennially happy mom, though the jury’s still out on whether taking in Cousin Oliver was a good idea.
1. Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad)
The Cosby Show (1984-1992); A Different World (1988-1990)
Yes, we know. That aside, Phylicia Rashad essayed one of the great TV characters in working mom Clair Huxtable. A successful lawyer, Clair is mother to five children (and occasionally her husband, Cliff). Clair is smart and witty, like Cliff, but certainly more clever. She’s also seen as more patient, but is the disciplinarian when the need arises. Like many TV moms, Clair ends up being a maternal figure for the various friends and love interests of her children. The Huxtables even take in Clair’s young cousin, Pam, later in the series. Due to her professional standing and feminist values, Clair is often cited as a role model in media; even The New York Times referred to her as “America’s Mom.” A breakthrough aspirational synthesis of heart, hard work, and heralded representation, Clair Huxtable is TV’s Greatest Mom.
TV’s 5 Worst Moms
5. Ellis Grey (Kate Burton)
Grey’s Anatomy (2005-possibly the heat death of the universe)
A brilliant surgeon and a nightmare of a wife and mother, Ellis Grey is a toxic presence to her daughter, Meredith. Nevertheless, Meredith is driven to also become a surgeon, and later cares for her mom when she develops Alzheimer’s disease. Though the depiction of the character is blunted by sympathy for her condition and eventual death, every flashback (including those when she was played by Sarah Paulson as young Ellis) shows her to be awful.
4. Betty Draper (January Jones)
Mad Men (2007-2015)
Yes, Don Draper is one of the worst husbands to ever slide a wedding ring into his pocket at a bar, but Betty Draper is pretty far from Mom of the Year. Selfish and incredibly self-involved, Betty treats her children as, at best, inconveniences and, at worst, adversaries. When you deliberately blow smoke in your kid’s face, you shouldn’t expect too many bouquets in May.
3. Marie Barone (Doris Roberts)
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)
If there were a list for worst mother-in-law, Marie Barone would be contending for that title, too. Smothering to her son, Raymond, while generally being terrible to her other son, Robert, Marie is intrusive and obnoxious on an almost daily basis. Granted, part of the problem is Ray’s inability to draw boundaries; the rest of the problem is Marie.
2. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
Cersei Lannister is proof that someone can love their children and still be a terrible person. Her permissiveness and own internal rot allowed Joffrey to become a monster. She objects to her daughter, Myrcella, being sent to Dorne, but does little about it other than use the situation as an excuse to hate her brother, Tyrion, more. And she orchestrates the death of her son Tommen’s wife, leading Tommen to commit suicide. Cersei outlives all of her kids (which, of course, were all fathered by her brother, Jaime).
1. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand)
The Sopranos (1999-2001)
Verbally abusive, venomous, and downright mean, Livia Soprano shapes her son Tony’s criminal impulses as much as his gangster father. Her manipulation of other characters leads to Tony nearly being murdered on two separate occasions. When your boiling hostility to your own son leads you to trying to have them killed outright, you’re TV’s Worst Mom.
Featured image: Marion Ross, Florence Henderson, and Phylicia Rashad (Shutterstock)
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