Tuesday, August 3, 2010

You're Not Grounded: The Advent of Bad Parenting TV

In honor of Nancy Botwin's imminent return (Monday, August 16, 10 PM), about which I am as giddy as I am terrified.

It started with two Gilmore girls. With their trademark rapid dialogue and superhuman witticisms, Lorelei and Rory Gilmore mini-revolutionized the small screen mother-daughter rapport, setting a precedent that would be difficult to reverse. Even as sensible mothers and daughters acknowledged the scripted quality of the fictional relationship, we still lusted after the Gilmores’ dynamic. The grounding and punishment of unruly children were suddenly obsolete, because Rory was the sweet, obedient daughter every parent dreamed of, and it was Lorelei’s anti-authoritarian parenting style that created this angelic child. And thus spawned the belief that familial behavioral cycles could actually be constructive. What a crock.

Since then, the Gilmore phenomenon has escalated. As television evolved, the “cool” parents have devolved into just plain bad. Having just wrapped its second season, Showtime’s United States of Tara depicts a set of parents so ridiculously laissez-faire, it would make Ward Cleaver’s head spin. Half the time, the titular Tara and her husband Max have no clue what their kids are up to, and when they do, they all but hand them the keys to the gun cabinet. They might offer a half-hearted reprimand here and there but nothing that screams Involved Parent At Work. Take this exchange between Max and 15-year-old daughter Kate, on her way to meet not her Civics project partner but the dirtbaggiest of dirtbag boyfriends.

Max: It’s 9 o’clock, are you kidding me?
Kate: What, are you being, like, strict daddy now? Are you gonna take me to one of those purity balls?
Max: One hour. No negotiating.

Ummm, Max, I believe your exceedingly sexualized teen just negotiated the hell out of you. “I can’t seem to micromanage my daughter’s vagina,” Tara complains after finding a morning-after pill prescription in Kate’s backpack. I guess I’m supposed to feel for them but I just can’t muster the sympathy, when the most displeasure either of them show on the issue is, “I’m not real thrilled with you right now” — oh Max, you’re such a dad! Add an overly exaggerated wagging finger and faux grumpy voice and you’ve got all the ferocity of a Shirley Temple movie.

On one hand, I do have to hand it to Tara and Max, because it’s great to see TV parents who are incredibly and unconditionally supportive of their children in matters of sexual orientation and alternate post-high school endeavors. On the other hand, it is not normal for children to meet with zero opposition from their parents in every situation. Even Lorelei Gilmore had a prolonged estrangement from her adult daughter upon learning she had dropped out of Yale, and justifiably so — it was Yale! For free!

Probably sadder than a shitty parent, though, is one who degenerates into a shitty parent over time. Nancy Botwin, the heroine of the long-running Weeds also on Showtime — has been steadily hitting a new low every season since the show’s inception in 2005. We all loved her as a recently widowed mother of two trying to keep a roof over her family’s head, but what started as a harmless (ha, ha) stint as a suburban marijuana dealer has turned our Nancy into a morally defunct shadow of her former self. All of a sudden, she’s complicit in human trafficking and getting knocked up by Mexican drug lords. Is this show even a comedy anymore? Because I swear these plotlines are coming straight out of an Inarritu film. Thank God for Andy, Nancy’s manchildish brother-in-law who still manages to bring comic relief to an increasingly tense viewing experience. 

Thus far, Nancy has turned a blind eye to the following events involving her sons: 17-year-old Silas schtupping his thirtysomething neighbor, 13-year-old Shane losing his virginity in a kiddie threesome, Silas selling weed, Shane getting drunk, etc. By the time the latest season finale rolled around and I watched [a possibly drunk] Shane deliver the final blow — by croquet mallet, to a woman’s head, most likely fatal — I simply picked my jaw off the floor and thought to myself, “Well, Nance, there’s no redemption from this one.”

Don’t get me wrong — I love the weekly Nancy-hits-rock-bottom-again drama. I drink it up like the sweet nectar of the gods who birthed it, because in spite of being more uncomfortable to watch than Dexter, the show’s writers are still among the best at dialogue and, aside from the rare Oedipal exception, generally adept at skirting the line between Holy Shit, Did That Just Happen? and Dear God, Look Away!

As entertainment, Weeds and Tara are justifiably cutting edge, but these same shows also make me want to swear off ever having children. When did cutting-edge television start meaning shock factor, pure and simple? We now have TV parents who are philanderers, drug dealers, even serial killers, for shit’s sake. All in all, stuff that would make Uncle Jesse blush straight through that dreamy olive complexion. And I get it. Parents are human beings too, and it’s scripted TV, and it’s why we love it. But suddenly you have bitches like Dina Lohan trying to be her daughter's BFF-who-hits-you-up-for-fifty-grand-once-in-a-while. Or Britney Spears losing custody to the likes of Kevin Federline. Or Jon and Kate dueling it out publicly to the point where you have a tough time deciding whom to write off as The Douche. (Yeah, OK, it’s Jon.)

Yes, I know these are highly publicized, Hollywood-adjacent cases and that the world (and certainly Hollywood) has always been full of shitty parents. I am not attempting to jump on the television-is-the-devil’s-playground train. However, it’s undeniable that society and the media are, to a certain extent, mutually influential.

Ultimately, I’ll continue to watch my favorite irresponsible mommies and daddies on TV, gleefully even. Maybe I’ll even steal furtive glances at tabloid headlines featuring Jon and The Lesser of Two Douches; there’s no real harm in it. Still, amidst all the shoddy parenting that currently seems to permeate both art and life, I have to wonder: which is imitating which?


  1. Advent? Anyone remember Al and Peg Bundy? ;o)

  2. Dooglebug, touche. I was trying to keep it 21st Century :)

  3. I was thinking of the Bundy clan and Rosanne. Two families my mom turned her nose up at because of the bad parenting. Ha ha, I'm stuck in the past too I guess.

    BTW I think Lorelei would have read Rory the riot act if she hadn't been such an angel child.

  4. @Artillery:

    Or, was Rory an angel child because Lorelai DIDN'T read her the riot act? The show just suggests a chicken and egg scenario whose origin is impossible to pinpoint. That's all I'm saying.