COLUMNS

WHERE ARE THE REAL WOMEN?

Prime time isn’t keeping pace with the ever-evolving modern family

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON June 6 2005
COLUMNS

WHERE ARE THE REAL WOMEN?

Prime time isn’t keeping pace with the ever-evolving modern family

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON June 6 2005

WHERE ARE THE REAL WOMEN?

Prime time isn’t keeping pace with the ever-evolving modern family

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

A LONG TIME AGO, when all families were nuclear, all mothers wore aprons and all fathers smoked pipes, there were no real single parents. At least, that was reality, TV-style: it was a Noah’s Ark world, where mothers cooked, fathers knew best and both slept, twoby-two, in identical twin beds. If, by some unfortunate circumstance, a parent was minus a partner, they were rendered single not by choice, but by tragedy. Invariably, it was the female half of the twin-set who had sadly—or conveniently—died. And the dad? For the

most part, he was just dandy. He had a good handle on his kid(s), and a loyal sidekick to boot—a handy wife-substitute to help with the sticky bits of life. Think Andy Griffith, Opie and Aunt Bee.

Eddie’s father, Eddie and Mrs. Livingston. The My Three Sons crew, plus Uncle Charley. And of course, Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright: with three dead wives, three very alive sons and loyal Hop Sing, he was TV’s first real survivor.

Of course, in the rare event that a widower wanted to remarry, there was—what luck!—a willing widow at the ready. Double tragedy gave birth to The Brady Bunch, a stepfamily blissfully unfettered by step-issues. A family entirely untroubled by the messy complications of real, live ex-spouses. No joint custody, no shared parentteacher interviews, no empty beds on alternate Christmas mornings.

Thankfully, in the 36 years since The Brady Bunch first aired, family life has developed a few new plot twists and so too has television. Not that I’m an expert. In fact, the last time I was truly smitten with anything on TV was at a pyjama party in Grade 6 when our 12-year-old host suggested we take turns kissing Steve McQueen’s face onscreen. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.)

Still, as my own status has changed from single to married and back to single again, from parent to separated parent—or should that be “friendly co-parent”?—I’ve taken more than a passing interest in the everevolving script of the modem family, and how it plays out on TV. Yes, I was in the cheering

Passionate and complex, Ruth is one of TV's most intriguing parents

section when Murphy Brown chose single motherhood, getting Dan Quayle’s knickers in a very public twist. And I was there, more profoundly, when the uncompromising Jane Tennison said no to the same prospect on the brilliant Prime Suspect. I was there when the baby-weary Miranda dove under the bed in Sex and the City, just to avoid her son’s father and his new girlfriend. And most of all, I was there for the few seasons of Once and Again, a series that featured two divorced couples—the full double twin-set—wrestling with all the messy complexities of dating and child-rearing, jealousy and loneliness, bitterness and love.

It was a hit. And then, poof, it was cancelled, despite massive protests.

So where is my reality TV? If, as one male critic recently wrote, television is “a woman’s world and the rest of us are just hanging around in it,” I’d like to know: where are the real women? Or the real men, for that matter? Certainly not on that campy confection Desperate Housewives, or the cloying Gilmore Girls—two shows where the teenaged daughters are light years ahead of their alltoo-yummy single mummies. Here is the perky Lorelai Gilmore, telling a friend she hopes her daughter will be accepted into an elite school: “I offered to do the principal to get her in.” Hey, what a mum!

Do we really need to see ourselves reflected in the mirror of popular culture? Maybe not. But we’d be naive to say it doesn’t matter. And if it does, there’s a certain single parent who deserves our attention: a widow who, believe it or not, just happens to like wearing aprons. For the past four seasons, the translucent Ruth Fisher has been one of the better reasons to tune into the quirky and remarkable Six Feet Under. As the griefstricken single mother of three who gradually blossoms, morphing into a sexual being in front of her appalled children’s eyes, the middle-aged Ruth is joyful and world-weary, passionate and deeply complex. And while her first husband may be dead, he is by no means absent or silent. Like all departed spouses—dead or alive—he haunts her when she least expects it. “I miss what we had, Nathaniel,” she tells him. “Then find it again,” he says, and promptly disappears.

Now, as the final season premieres on June 6 (TMN/ Movie Central ), the question remains: is the protean Ruth, now remarried, up to Nathaniel’s challenge? Can a threedimensional being, struggling with her past, present and future, move forward with grace, generosity and hope? Who knows. These are the perennial questions in the ever-evolving script of the modern family. And for now, so few of us can say with any certainty how it will all unfold.