TV’s Greatest: Best and Worst Moms

Celebrate Mother’s Day with 10 great (and 5 not-so-great) moms.

Marion Ross, Florence Henderson, and Phylicia Rashad (Shutterstock)
Marion Ross, Florence Henderson, and Phylicia Rashad (Shutterstock)

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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)

Debra Jo Rupp
(Shutterstock)

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)

Estelle Getty
(Shutterstock)

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)

Gil Gerard and Karen Grassle
(NBC Publicity photo via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

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)

Marion Ross
(Shutterstock)

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)

Tracee Ellis Ross
(Shutterstock)

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

Michael Learned
(Shutterstock)

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)

Barbara Billingsley
(ABC Publicity photo via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

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
(The Morning Call via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

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)

Florence Henderson
(Shutterstock)

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)

Phylicia Rashad
(Shutterstock)

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)

Kate Burton
(Shutterstock)

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)

January Jones
(Shutterstock)

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)

Doris Roberts
(Shutterstock)

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)

Lena Headey
(Shutterstock)

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)

Nancy Marchand
(PR photo ©CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

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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Comments

  1. Not sure how you could have left Peg Bundy off the list of terrible mothers. Foul-mouthed, crass and totally self-absorbed.

  2. I don’t understand how you could overlook these TV Moms who deserved be in that top 10 list: Gloria Henry who played “Alice Mitchell” in Dennis the Menace, Shirley Jones who played the mother of The Partridge Family, Bonnie Franklin who played single mom “Ann Romano”on One Day at a Time, and Linda Lavin who played the single mom in “Alice.”

  3. Jeff Baker, I really liked your comment on Marion Ross. I’ll have to see if I can find that episode of the ’70s show she was on. I like her as well, and am very glad she’s doing so well at 93. She was born in 1928 like my mother and when I see her now I can’t help but think “if only” regarding my mom, especially today.

    Fran, I’m really glad you watch ‘Little House’ to this day. It’s a great, timeless series. I love Katherine MacGregor so much AS Mrs. Oleson, I just give her a free pass. At heart, she’s a good woman. I get a kick out of her, kind of like I do with myself.

    Also Fran, you’re right. I didn’t/don’t like The Golden Girls, but thought that was pretty clear here without my saying it as such; but there, I said it. Too lowest common denominator and repetitive. If you enjoy it, watch whenever you like! I’m glad I happened to look at this feature again now on Mother’s Day and satisfy your curiosity myself instead of asking Troy. I don’t think he’ll mind a bit. Sometimes you just need to look at the context and read between the lines for answers to be revealed.

  4. I don’t understand how Bob could possibly have liked the Mrs. Oleson character on ‘Little House On The Prairie’ at all, I thought she was a terrible mother. I still watch the reruns to this day. Also don’t understand in the later comments what he is saying about ‘The Golden Girls’. I don’t think he likes it but doesn’t come out and say it, so I’m not sure. I prefer the Golden Girls to ‘The Designing Women’ which was more serious. Could you ask? I’m curious. Happy Mother’s Day!

  5. A tip of the hat to Marion Ross playing Kitty’s awful mother-in-law on a few episodes of “That 70s Show.” May have been spoofing Marion Cunningham more than a little. Her surprise appearance in a flashback the next season was nonetheless welcome!

  6. (continued from below)

    Estelle Getty did her shtick very well. The best thing about her show was that without it, there may never have been the intelligent, sophisticated Designing Women starting the following year. It’s sad because Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan were/are three of my favorite actresses. I was used to seeing them all in multi-dimensional roles prior to that. Bea Arthur said years later ‘Maude’ was a labor of love, the later show a steady paycheck.

    Debra Jo Rupp was a good TV mom, given the material. Like Happy Days being a 70’s show, hers was a ’90’s/2000’s show trying to depict what was never a popular decade to start with, making it more negative. The ’90s show will be easy as pie to depict. It’s got everyone back apparently except Danny the rapist. What a loser. I’m surprised the exchange student (Wilmer) agreed to it after being on NCIS for several years. Must have offered him big bucks…

    Bonnie Franklin was a wonderful TV mom too, I’d like to mention here for her 1975-’84 sitcom above a divorced mom with two teenage daughters having to make it on her own. As far as the worst mothers go, I’d have to go with Peg Bundy. Of these here, I only watched Madmen, so I can’t speak of the others. Betty Draper was a bad mom as mentioned, yes, but I still see this character in a sympathetic enough light, all things considered.

  7. Wow, this is quite a list. I really like Phylicia Rashad very much, more than the show itself otherwise. Eighties sitcoms weren’t my thing; Full House, Family Ties, Too Close For Comfort. So it wasn’t her show specifically at all. The only one I really loved was The Designing Women with Dixie Carter that went into the early ’90s.

    Florence Henderson was absolutely wonderful. The original Brady Bunch (’69-’74) at its core was really a 50’s sitcom, but state-of-the-art early 70’s at the same time in terms of the clothes, hair styles, the sets, everything. After the 60’s, the ’50s is what this nation wanted, and got it unofficially with this show. A great time capsule of the ’70s first half. The 2nd half was very different, and the show seemed nostalgic even still within the decade.

    Esther Rolle was a terrific mom too. I think she was actually funnier as ‘Florida’ on Maude first with better lines than on ‘Good Times’. This is often true with spinoffs. Just look at Valerie Harper on Rhoda vs. Mary’s show. Barbara Billingsley was wonderful as June Cleaver (as was Marjorie Lord on The Danny Thomas Show) and I think I’ve seen nearly every episode, and don’t recall seeing her vacuuming, or from a distance showing her in high heels doing so.

    Michael Learned (still not used to her first name, but oh well) was perfect as Olivia Walton. I enjoyed the sequel films too which took the family into the early ’60s. One of ‘the kids’ landed a job for a big time magazine which I think was none other than The Saturday Evening Post.

    Tracee Ellis Ross certainly is a great TV mom, and very funny when she’s allowed to be. Her show may be too of-its-time otherwise to age well. I love Marion Ross as well; a great TV mom. Unfortunately her show was a ’70s show’ that went on waaay too long. She got caught up in the repetitive catch phrases of the era too, unfortunately.

    Karen Grassle was wonderful as Caroline Ingalls. Very calming and reassuring in dealing with her family and other people. Not sure who’s giving her a surprise embrace here. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I love Mrs. Oleson so much, I’d almost like to add her to this list, NOT the other one.

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