Cool parental units: "I just love my rotten little brats."

One of my favorite shows when I was nine or ten was Clarissa Explains It All. No matter how awesome I thought Clarissa’s hijinxs were—her best friend climbing up to her bedroom window to come visit was especially cool—I couldn’t convince my mother of the show’s greatness. It turns out whatever the show lacked in writing or characterization is not what my mother opposed, rather she hated how Clarissa’s parents were portrayed: as clueless ditzes who had no idea what was going on in their daughter’s life. 

I don’t think my mom was expecting Clarissa’s parents to be the Bradys, but she simply expected parents—even TV parents—to be active in their children’s lives. Over the past few years, I’d say she’s gotten her wish.

Even though the “mom role” is one that some actresses disregard because it is one of the few roles available to women of a certain age, plenty of actresses have shown that these roles are more than just the agreeable wife and/or oblivious mother, they have meat to them.

One of the first in a trend of active parents was Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) on Gilmore Girls. The show centers on Lorelai and daughter, Rory, who live together in a small town in Connecticut. Their parent-child relationship is more like that of best friends or sisters, since Lorelai had Rory when she was only sixteen.

Although the pilot episode of Gilmore Girls received funding from the Family Friendly Programming Forum, many other family groups complained that the show was portraying teenage pregnancy in a positive light. Quite the opposite, since Lorelai was often encouraging Rory not to make the same mistakes that she had and was active in her daughter’s life, whether it was schoolwork or dating.

An even more realistic and down to earth counterpart to Lorelai Gilmore is Friday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor. Not only is Tami fiercely loyal to her family, but she is committed to bettering the students that she counsels at Dillon High School and later, East Dillon. As guidance counselor, she tries to be open and honest with her students and has been known to take some of them under her wing. One example is Tyra Colette, who Tami sees something in that Tyra’s family and Tyra herself don’t even see. Tami knows Tyra wants to get out of Dillon, so she pushes her to be diligent about her schoolwork and apply to four-year colleges rather than community college. 

Tami is played perfectly by the wonderful Connie Britton. I dare you to watch Tami and not want her to be your mom, your cheerleader, your mentor. This is not even touching on the fabulous parenting and coaching skills of Tami’s husband, Coach Eric Taylor. The two of them are a force to be reckoned with.

Cool parents have also taken up residence on movie screens in recent films featuring teenage protagonists.

In Juno, in which “quirky and quotable” (per Jiminy Glick) high school student Juno MacGuff gets pregnant, her parents, Mac and Bren (played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, respectively) keep cool heads. They’re supportive of their daughter’s decision to put the baby up for adoption. Through her pregnancy and meeting the future adoptive parents of her child, Juno experiences the pressures of adult life, but she is able to talk to her parents, especially her father about these events.

Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) tells a simple lie in Easy A that rapidly spins out of control at her high school and starts to damage her reputation. Instead of fighting back against the rumor mill, she goes along with it and lets everyone in her high school think she’s sleeping around.

Olive’s parents, Rosemary and Dill (I know, I know—Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci) were the highlights of the movie. They have witty repartee, but most importantly, trust their daughter and let her do her own thing. Even when the circumstances of Olive’s situation become more suspect—such as her wearing clothes to school embroidered with a scarlet A—Olive’s parents simply ask if they need to be concerned and when she tells them no, they let her have her space. There’s also a great scene between Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone, where Olive is coming clean about the situation to Rosemary.

Back to the small screen, the most recent mom role that is more complex than it first appears is Sarah Braverman on NBC’s Parenthood. Several years after Lorelai Gilmore, Lauren Graham takes on the role of Sarah, a single parent who moves her two teenage kids from Fresno back to her childhood home in Berkeley. Sarah, who works as a bartender and did not finish college, feels outpaced by her siblings Peter and Julia and at times, outparented. However, Sarah’s relationship with her children is my favorite on the show, especially her bond with her daughter, Amber (Mae Whitman).

Amber is not happy about having to start over in a new town and she often rebels against her mother, but at the same time, they seek solace in each other when they most need it. Sarah knows Amber is smart and encourages her to strive for more than she did—namely, a college education. Graham and Whitman give effortless performances and make their mother/daughter bond realistic without being cloying. Their tenuous bond was the heart of the show in its first season and I look forward to seeing it develop even further.