The Rise of the Smother

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How Speechless, the Goldbergs, Black-ish, and Fresh Off the Boat are redefining TV parenthood.

The Goldbergs

You have heard it time and time again: Millennials are coddled. Millennials, this nebulous mix of young adults, are maligned as a product of helicopter parents. They hover, observe, and micromanage their children’s days in a way that borders on obsessive. While June Cleaver, Lucy Ricardo, Carol Brady, and Clair Huxtable are names synonymous with television motherhood. They represent TV child rearing in their respective eras and their parenting tactics reflect the generations they raised and their cultural context. ABC’s current sitcom lineup of mothers is no different. Now, our televisions are rife with a diverse group of helicopter parents: Beverly Goldberg (Wendi McLendon-Covey) of The Goldbergs, Maya Dimeo (Mini Driver) of Speechless, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) of Black-ish, and Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) of Fresh Off the Boat. Each of these shows uses the helicopter parent as a vehicle to discuss both shared and culturally specific parenting experiences. What makes ABC’s smother filled lineup work is that there is no smother, smather in Andre’s case, that cause a viewer to doubt the genuine affection that they have for their children.

In addition to being a love letter to all things great about the 80s, The Goldbergs is an examination of helicopter parenting and distinct cultural family dynamics. The Goldbergs is a show that embraces the smother term as a label for a helicopter parent. Beverly Goldberg is the most obvious example of a helicopter parent. As a present day, Adam Goldberg (Patton Oswalt) narrates, “My smother has chained herself to my life.” Indeed, Beverly does chain herself to the lives of her children. Beverly is a Jewish mom in the 80s whose biggest priority is the safety, happiness, and snuggling availability of her three children: Adam, Barry, and Erica. Beverly will reach this particular goal by any means necessary, whether it is barging onto school grounds to get her daughter Erica a Hanukkah solo or bribing jocks to sit with her son Adam in the lunchroom. Beverly’s motherly love knows no bounds.

The Goldbergs is not perfect but when it comes closest to perfection, that apex is due to the interplay between Adam (Sean Giambrone) and Beverly. This year’s Halloween episode featured a Stephen King-inspired Adam writing a short story. In the story Adam depicts Beverly as a monster with tentacles. Beverly soon discovers that her son’s story features her as a monster and counters by insisting Adam remain indoors on Halloween to rewrite the short story to her liking a la Annie Wilkes in Misery. In addition to snappy one-liners and clever visual gags, the episode gives a gratifying revelation. Although Adam cast Beverly as a monster, it is telling that he placed her in his work at all.

The episode plays on a meta because as viewers tune into the show week after week, they are in essence watching Adam F. Goldberg do just what his on-screen counterpart is doing in that episode. Recreating the family dynamic and his mother through his eyes. Beverly is a fictional version of Adam F. Goldberg’s real-life mother. It is this layer of the real over the unreal of sitcom television that gives the best episodes of The Goldbergs their charm. When the audience and the characters are grounded in genuine familial affection, no matter how aggressive and intrusive, the show works.

Speechless

Speechless’ smother Maya Dimeo (Mini Driver) is also a mother of three: J.J. (Micah Fowler) a non-verbal high schooler with cerebral palsy and quick wit, Dylan (Kyla Kennedy) the eldest athletic daughter, and Ray (Mason Cook) the nerdy and neurotic middle child. The family is rounded out by Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) as the even-keeled dad. Reno 911’s Cedric Yarbrough rounds out the cast as Kenneth, J.J.’s aid. A lot of the fun of Speechless is the relationship between Kenneth and J.J. J.J., like Adam, loves his mom but wants his space and independence. Kenneth, most of the time, agrees with J.J., and this causes the three to butt heads. Maya has a simple drive: the desire to ensure that her children receive anything and everything they need. It is the differing opinions on what is needed that makes the show run.

Maya’s helicopter parenting is rooted in genuine and justified concern for her son J.J. While J.J. does require assistance in his everyday life: Maya, Kenneth, and Jimmy can sometimes take their hands on joint parenting to a detailed level. For example, there is an episode in which J.J. wishes to date a classmate. J.J. invites the girl to his home to watch a movie. Much time is spent during the episode navigating and practicing the various lighting changes, position shifts, and romantic cues that Maya, Kenneth, and Jimmy will have to do in order to aid J.J. in his quest to woo his classmate. The attempts to aid J.J. in romantic advances result in J.J. feeling awkward the first time then J.J. failing to seduce his classmate the second time. The episode is about the common teenage experience of unrequited affections.

No discussion of smotherhood would be complete without Jessica Huang of Fresh Off the Boat. Fresh Off the Boat is a show about a Taiwanese family in Florida. Fresh Off the Boat centers around the restaurant owning Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu) and their three children. Eddie (Hudson Yang) the rap obsessed eldest son and the show’s protagonist, Emory (Forest Wheeler) is mature for his age as the middle child, and Evan (Ian Chen) a by the book straight A student. Loosely based on a memoir by Eddie Huang the show, like The Goldbergs, grounds itself in real cultural experience. It also revels in its 90s setting as much as The Goldbergs revels in its 80s setting.

Fresh Off the Boat

Jessica is the matriarch of the Huang family who is a no-nonsense and aggressive mother whose only goal is to ensure that her children surpass her success and have the skill set required to survive. Jessica is the type of parent that wants her children to be the best, and she makes that clear, “If you’re going to do something, be the best.” She does not helicopter parent in the submissive and constantly reassuring sense. Rather, Jessica believes tough love will ensure her children the best chance to live up to her high expectations.

In a recent episode, Eddie decided that he no longer wanted to attend school because he felt that it was useless and that he could still reach high school with good grades and high school was the only area of schooling that counted anyway. The theory was hard for Jessica and Louis to contradict, their prior statements to their son did not stress the importance of middle school. What finally makes Eddie realize that school is necessary is a frank discussion with his mother regarding why she finds education so important. Jessica, like many parents, wants her children to surpass her reach and opportunities. Jessica has an honest discussion with Eddie that stresses this. Through depicting Jessica having a clear conversation with her children about the importance of considering the future and her dreams and goals for them, Fresh Off the Boat can show that motherhood, regardless of racial background, should ultimately be an exercise in doing the best you can for your children: a universal goal.

Black-ish

If Beverly, Jessica, and Maya are helicopter moms, then Andre is a helicopter dad. Black-ish is among many things a show about parenting. Rainbow’s (Tracie Ellis Ross) laid back hippie parenting style versus Andre’s (Anthony Anderson) nervous helicopter parenting. The back and forth between both parents creates a sense of balance that is needed. The balance of the two parenting styles came to the forefront during the show’s discussion of police brutality. Where the female smother’s we’ve discussed offered differing views on Jewish mothers, defied the Tiger Mom stereotype, and gave Maya an advocate bite, Black-ish redefines fatherhood. Too often tired racist statements about the lack of African-American fathers has blighted discourse. The myth, rooted in racial bias, has proven consistently untrue. What Black-ish has done most for depictions of black fatherhood and parenthood, in general, is show that fathers can be just as involved in the lives of their children as their mothers. Further, that worrying about the future and well-being of children and their rearing is not just a job for a mother.

Parenting has no guidebook. Children come bearing no instruction. As millennials grow and begin to parent their children, they will see each night on their television screens depictions similar to their likely real life helicopter parents. It is often said that the past looks the rosiest in the present. While helicopter parenting has been maligned and millennials are now reaching the age where they may think back to their childhood. Millennial childhood, however prolonged, what becomes apparent is that seeing one’s life experience on screen is essential. Further, that understanding that the majority of parents do what they think best at the time is sometimes enough. Perhaps, speaking personally as someone who has lost both parents, despite parental mistakes at the end of the day you miss the hovering. You miss the advice. The planning and the obsessive advising. Because in the end, it was nice knowing someone was there.

Writer and law student.