Boston: It’s been nearly 30 years since One Day at a Time went off the air — since Bonnie Franklin, who played single mother Ann Romano on the long-running sitcom, was regularly seen on TV. But Franklin’s death last week, at 69, has prompted an outpouring of emotion on the usually cynical Internet, with a common refrain: “I always wished she could be my mom.”
Ann Romano was a particular kind of mom, a rarity on TV when the show premiered in 1975: divorced and living in an apartment in Indianapolis, raising two teenage daughters on her own. Carol Brady had a Barbie Dream House, a husband, and a full-time housekeeper to help manage the minor dramas of sibling jealousy and cheerleading tryouts. For nine seasons plus syndication, Ann Romano dealt with smaller digs and bigger issues: runaways, suicide, birth control, sex.
And while One Day at a Time offered male energy and comic relief in the form of Schneider, the building superintendent, he was more of a surrogate uncle than a father figure. This was a mother-daughter show, and a stark reminder of how diminished the TV mom has since become.
The decline of the TV mom is partly a function of the general decline in the family sitcom, the morality-tale-with-laugh-track that populated three-channel TV in the ’70s and ’80s. These days, with some notable exceptions, sitcoms largely focus on surrogate families: groups of friends, as in How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory; or colleagues who find love of various kinds in the workplace.
Those relationships can be satisfying, too: The Liz Lemon/Jack Donaghy friendship on 30 Rock, platonic and a tiny bit paternal, was a marvel of complexity. But it worked in part because Liz needed Jack on a personal level: For all of her relationship ups and downs, she never seemed to have to deal with her own mother’s opinion. Jack Donaghy’s mother, meanwhile, was pure evil — rivaling the mother on Two and a Half Men.
Across the present-day sitcom world, that’s how mothers often are: mostly absent, mostly foolish, or worse. (Even the mothers on Modern Family, warm and well-meaning, are often as needy as their kids, if not more so.) On HBO’s Girls — which, like One Day at a Time, explores young women’s sexual coming-of-age — Hannah’s mother rarely appears, and when she does, she’s completely disconnected from her daughter’s struggle for self-definition in New York. Critics made a big deal about how unrealistic the show is for portraying a Brooklyn that’s mostly white. But isn’t it equally odd that, in a show about women presumably raised by boomer-era helicopter parents, none of them seems to talk to her mother at all?
Ann Romano’s daughters did talk to her, openly and uncomfortably and often rebelliously, and if the episodes sometimes had the didactic air of an After School Special — plus that artificial sitcom patter — they also felt steeped in reality. (Compare Ann and her daughters, hashing out big-life issues on the couch over plates of HoHos, to the slickly clever dialogue in Gilmore Girls, a much-loved show that turned the mother-daughter relationship on its head.)
Bonnie Franklin’s genius, as an actress, was making Ann seem wise but still confused. She’s also credited with making sure the writers stayed true to the character, resisting any urges to turn her into a feminist caricature or to latch her onto a man.
One of the few One Day at a Time episodes that’s easily found on YouTube is Pressure, which first aired in 1979. Barbara, the younger daughter played by Valerie Bertinelli, tries to decide whether to lose her virginity at 18. Ann struggles with what to say. She wants to let her daughters make their own decisions — something she hadn’t done at their age — while still guiding them toward the right choices.
“You have to admit, Mom is very understanding,” Julie, the older sister, says at one point.
“Don’t you hate it,” Barbara replies. “Most kids have these normal parents they can rebel against.”
But what made Ann Romano such a fantasy mom was the fact that she was normal — not a distant, malevolent figure or an insecure best friend. She was a person you could talk to, who still acted like your mother.
Weiss is a Boston Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.