Sorry, “Mom,” but working-class drug addiction and family dysfunction aren’t laughing matters; for millions of Americans, they’re an inescapable reality.
As the U.S. government remains closed this week due to infighting on Capitol Hill, let us rest for a moment and take up a somewhat lighter topic that interests nearly everyone – television. In particular, consider that veritable art form known as the family-orientated situational comedy. Once, it was an ode to all that was good and bright in America – motherhood, apple pie, you name it. Like a shining beacon in the night, Donna Reed let us know our country was on sound moral ground whenever we turned on and tuned in.
Not so much these days, it would seem, for a new CBS comedy about the trials and tribulations of a long-suffering single mother, starring Anna Farris as the aforementioned mom and Allison Janney as her equally dysfunctional maternal role model, illuminates just how far the American nuclear family has fallen from its “Leave It to Beaver” 1950s ideal. Want to know how low the bar has gotten? Just watch “Mom,” which airs Monday nights on CBS.
The gist of the show is that the thirty-ish single-mom played by Farris sees the light after years of alcoholism and drug abuse, and decides to start over by ditching her past bad habits, going to Alcoholics Anonymous and becoming a more responsible parent for her two children – an adolescent daughter and a pre-teen young boy, neither of whom share the same father. Along the way, Farris’ character reconnects with her equally dysfunctional mother Janney, who is also in recovery at, coincidently, the same chapter of AA as Farris.
The show is thus set up as a comedic redemption story with the main characters, long in the gutter, working to pull themselves out of the decrepitude they had fallen into. It also sets the stage for showing how the mistakes of the past influence the future, as Farris’ daughter, rebellious and naïve as her mother once was, ends up pregnant while still in high school. There are other subplots of course, such as the former drug-dealing deadbeat dad, who is Farris’ son’s father, and Farris’ affair with her married boss at work, but in essence the show is about how three generations of dysfunctional women – grandmother, daughter and granddaughter – relate to one another.
It’s not realistic
What is shocking is how mundanely all this is portrayed and how the show, so far, plays down the terrible consequences of intergenerational family dysfunction. Materially, for instance, the family portrayed in “Mom” is able to maintain what looks to be a nice, middle-class home despite the fact that the only one seen to be working – Farris’ character – works as a waitress at a local, fine-dining restaurant.
How she is able to afford rent or a mortgage, a car payment, or insurance, let alone the clothes, electronics, and sundry other items that are de rigueur in a middle-class home? None of this is made clear, but the idea that a single, low-income wage-earner could afford all the material plenty presented in the show is absurd. In reality, the visible standard of living of the family depicted in “Mom” would be much, much lower.
Second, the family, despite its past history of drug abuse and likely reality of near poverty, appears to have not had many run-ins with the law or any other of the seedy denizens that make up the American underclass. They appear, rather, to be somehow detached from the larger social milieu that folks in their circumstances end up in. As such, they suffer no real consequences for past actions and, to all outward appearances, remain stable members of White, middle-class society, and the forced normalness of it all come through readily on the screen.
Consider for an instant how this show would be perceived if the characters in it were Black or Hispanic. Instead of being material for punch lines, things like substance abuse, single motherhood, having children by different unwed fathers, casual references to participation in criminal behavior and the like would be condemned while the show itself would be a drama not unlike “The Wire” that depicted the hard reality of America’s working poor as opposed to a light-hearted family sitcom produced by the same people who brought us “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
That “Mom” is in fact a sitcom that expects us to amusingly mainline the normative message of the show – that pathological, intergenerational dysfunction among the underclass is normal and amusing – is what is so disturbing. Substance abuse, crime, unwed teenage mothers and so on are not laughing matters, and the chuckles very much fall flat when the material is more suitable for tragedy than comedy. The show suggests that we should make a quip and carry on, but for millions of Americans stuck in these circumstances, such gallows humor isn’t very funny.
Indeed, this is all the more so since the world depicted by “Mom” isn’t too far from reality for many, as the recently published book on the state of the White working class by controversial writer Charles Murray points out. In it, he uses socio-demographic data to demonstrate the degree to which White, working-class families have fallen. Their communities, he writes, are places where broken families, unwed motherhood, poverty, criminality and substance abuse have, in fact, increasingly become the norm.
While Murray is no doubt off the mark in ascribing this new state of affairs among working-class Whites solely to cultural causes – e.g. ‘the sixties’ – the reality he describes is no less real because of it.
Poverty is poverty is poverty
Furthermore, this decay in family stability is something that is increasingly becoming a characteristic of an economic class in the United States regardless of race or ethnicity. Richer Americans, quite simply, do not suffer from the same types of family maladies as do poor Americans. The well-off almost never have kids out of wedlock, have much lower rates of divorce, marry later and in general have much more solid families and familial structures supporting them throughout their lives, most especially when they are young and most vulnerable. We are therefore not just materially divided by class, but class itself is increasingly dividing us into very different social and political cultures as a result.
What’s worse is that as America becomes even more economically unequal, this trend will only get worse. More and more, social scientists have increasingly shown that poverty itself is responsible for family decay of the type described above. Recently published research suggests, for instance, that the mental fatigue and stress caused by being poor diminishes individuals’ ability to engage in long-term decision-making, while lack of viable pathways to upward mobility for many in low-income communities is largely responsible for America’s chronic teen pregnancy problem.
In short, in situations where hard work does not pay off, where there is no viable means to better oneself over the long term and where the all-consuming needs of the present indefinitely put off long-term considerations of the future, one is likely to see problems of the sort depicted in “Mom” and described by Murray. The tragedy of modern America is that instead of doing something concrete about it – such as by providing better social services or more targeted forms of charity that directly assist the poor in their struggle to break into the middle class – we’ve effectively given up and decided to engage in ridicule instead.
For a country that prides itself on its religiosity, this is monstrous. The poor, Christ told us, will always be with us, but this statement by a figure most in America call their Messiah wasn’t a call to abandon the poor to their own devices, let alone laugh at them while doing so. Increasingly, however, that is exactly what those who happen to be a bit better off seem to be doing – in between commercial breaks, of course.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.