On Friday, we said goodbye to Bonnie Franklin, who lost her battle with pancreatic cancer at 69. The perky, hard-working actress was best known for her pioneering role as a divorced single mother on the long-running sitcom “One Day at a Time.”
At the time – the show premiered in 1975 -- divorce and single parenting were still taboos on television, either avoided altogether or represented by supporting characters of a show. Vivian Vance (Ethel from “I Love Lucy”) had appeared as a divorced single mother on the groundbreaking “The Lucy Show” in the 1960s; Lucille Ball’s character, also single, was widowed. In 1970, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered after CBS executives axed Mary Richards’ divorce from her original backstory, replacing it with a broken engagement. (Apparently, there was a concern that viewers might somehow see “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as an extension of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” despite the characters having completely different names and identities, and CBS did not want to shatter the illusion of Rob and Laura Petrie’s perfect marriage. Because couples who don’t sleep in the same bed together, stay together, right?)
Times have changed in the last three decades or so, with divorce or separation at the center of some of today’s most popular series – “Cougartown,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Good Wife,” “Mad Men.” In honor of Franklin, we decided to take a look at unconventional women and families throughout TV history who showed us life beyond the white picket fence.
“Who’s The Boss?”
The 1980s sitcom that launched the enduring male fantasy that is Alyssa Milano had a one-of-a-kind setup: Divorced advertising exec and single mom Angela Bower (Judith Light) hires a male live-in nanny/housekeeper to help look after her son and keep the house in order. Tony’s (Tony Danza) daughter Samantha (Milano) joins him, and with Angela’s flamboyant, sexually liberated mother Mona a near-permanent fixture in the home, they establish a unique blended family. “Who’s The Boss?” was progressive not only for swapping the traditional gender roles of breadwinner and housekeeper, but for highlighting Mona’s free-spirited dating life. Though Angela and Tony eventually accept their attraction to each other and become romantic, they never marry, and the series ends on a happy but ambiguous note.
In this long-running sitcom, four women of a certain age live together in Florida after losing their husbands to death (three of them) or divorce (one.) While Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is known as the singular divorcee on the show, it turns out her mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) fled an arranged marriage before meeting Dorothy’s father, who died after decades of marriage. She marries again and quickly separates during the course of the show. Like “Who’s The Boss?,” “Golden Girls” features a female character in advancing years -- Rue McLanahan’s Blanche -- who juggles (and is sexually active with) a host of admiring suitors. A loose prototype for Samantha on “Sex & The City”? Maybe...
The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” spinoff finds Mary Richards' best friend back in her hometown of New York City, where she has a whirlwind romance with Joe Gerard, and the two marry in the first season, after Rhoda (Valerie Harper) is resistant to moving in with him without a wedding ring. But a few seasons in, the marriage falls apart and Joe leaves, telling Rhoda that he only got married in the first place because she pressured him to (kind of true.) Though the couple attempts to patch up their relationship, by season four they are officially divorced, and Rhoda returns to using her maiden name, Morgenstern. Viewers widely protested the split, and the show saw a steep decline in ratings after Joe and Rhoda’s separation. It was canceled in 1978 after its fifth season.
“Grace Under Fire”
Like Franklin’s character on “One Day at a Time,” the title character of this 1990s series is trying to start a new life as a single mother after leaving her husband. Grace, played by Brett Butler, was something of a working-class feminist heroine, spending her days at a male-dominated oil refinery to support her family. Her estranged, alcoholic husband makes several unsuccessful attempts to win her back, but the two eventually establish a genuine friendship -- and future shows about divorced couples (“Reba,” “Cougartown,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine”) would follow suit in portraying amicable relationships between divorcees.
The Reba McEntire vehicle took the notion of amicable divorce one step further: The title character not only maintains a friendly relationship with her ex-husband but the woman he left her for: A much younger dental hygenist, Barbara-Jean, who became pregnant with his child while he was still married to Reba. While Barbara sees Reba as her closest friend, Reba sometimes treats her as a surrogate child.
Ross Geller’s (David Schwimmer) multiple divorces became a running gag on the show, and a cause of much embarrassment for the lovelorn paleontologist. His first wife, Carol, leaves him for another woman while pregnant with his son, Ben. Later, he meets and falls in love with a British woman, Emily, but permanently damages their relationship when he blurts out the name of his longtime crush and ex-girlfriend, Rachel, at their wedding. They try to patch things up, but Ross can’t choose between his marriage to Emily and his friendship with Rachel, and they eventually divorce.
During a drinking binge in Las Vegas, Ross and Rachel get married in a quickie ceremony that neither one of them fully remembers. Ross convinces Rachel that it was annulled shortly thereafter, but it is later revealed that he never signed the papers, as he was uncomfortable with the idea of being a three-time divorcee in his thirties. The two eventually divorce, though they later have a child together, and the series ends with the expectation that they will get married.
Speaking of “Friends,” Courtney Cox stars as a recently single Florida mother, Jules, who is still very close with her deadbeat husband in “Cougar Town.” Their group of friends seem to spend every waking minute together, usually drinking, acting as one big, drunk boundary-less family. Case in point: Jules ends up dating and moving in with her neighbor, who is also her ex-husband’s best friend. It is unclear where the show gets its name, as the women on it appear to be dating men close to their own age.
Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, Skyler (Laura Gunn), got the shock of her life when she discovered that her high school chemistry teacher husband was moonlighting as a crystal meth cook to pay for his lung cancer treatment -- not long after she gave birth to an infant daughter. Though Skyler and Walt briefly became business partners and co-conspirators, Skyler can not tolerate his reckless, increasingly violent behavior, and she now sees her husband (they are separated, but not divorced) as her nemesis. The estranged couple’s seething hostility has become one of the show’s most fascinating elements, and it seems increasingly likely that Skyler will be the one who eventually takes Walt down.
Surrounded by her seemingly better-adjusted and happily married siblings, Sarah (Lauren Graham) is a sort-of struggling single mom, raising two children from her young marriage to Shane, a fledgling musician with drug and alcohol problems (John Corbett). Though she still has some feelings for Shane, she resists his attempts to reconcile their romance, having learned the hard way that he is too unreliable. While not as financially successful as her siblings -- Sarah lives in her parents’ guest house -- she is a devoted mother, determined not to repeat the mistakes of her youth, even as she is still paying for some of them. As the most recent season of “Parenthood” hinted at signs of trouble in other marriages, it would not be surprising if Sarah was soon joined by another divorcee.