Sitcoms have always been zeitgeists of the era in which they were created, clumsily tackling important issues with jokes while simultaneously upholding the values of the time. The Mary Tyler Moore Show offered audiences an independent woman in the workplace after the rise of feminism in the late '60s, The Jeffersons presented an African-American family finally "getting a piece of the pie" by moving into a luxury apartment in Manhattan from a blue-collar neighborhood in Queens and Bewitched confirmed what a dangerous decision it was for us to stop burning witches.
But when sitcoms so accurately reflect the collective climate of the time period in which they are created, you have to wonder why, then, networks decided the 1980s were a good time to start killing off moms.
"... then her heart stopped and I closed her eyes with my fingers."
That's not to say that every show in the 1980s was motherless. There were plenty of popular, family-centric sitcoms with moms during the decade, but it's also a little startling how many shows there were where the mother was either dead or willing to abandon her child in the pilot episode. Even more bizarre was how many of those shows became runaway successes. It suggests that sitcom creators weren't just firing in the dark, but rather responding to a theme that resonated with audiences way too often for it to be a coincidence. I have a theory why all those sitcoms killed off the mothers specifically in the 1980s, and it revolves around this commercial:
But we'll get to that later, first the evidence:
Hey, Look at All these Dead or Missing Moms
Arguably the first of this type of show, it started in 1978, but the majority of its run was in the '80s. It follows the life of two boys who are adopted by a wealthy businessman after their mother dies. The man, Philip Drummond, also has a biological daughter of his own, but her mother is completely absent, too.
After her mother abandons her in a shopping center, Punky Brewster squats for a few days in an abandoned apartment before the grouchy building manager finds her and subsequently adopts her, because those are the strict rules to which all landlords must adhere. Incidentally, he is also a widower.
My Two Dads
This hilarious sitcom starts with the mother of a teenage girl dying. Then, two men who were both sleeping with the mother simultaneously co-adopt the teenage girl because neither one is really sure if he's the father or not.
Gimme a Break
A police chief with three daughters loses his wife to cancer and hires a maid. That's it.
While technically the mother is present in some of the episodes of the show, she ships her son off to boarding school when she marries a new man because the boy is not conducive to her new lifestyle. The boy escapes from the school and goes to live with his biological father, who had no idea the kid ever existed.
A sportswriter with three daughters loses his wife in a car accident and moves into a house with his best friend and his wife's brother because he needs their help raising the kids.
Who's the Boss?
A former professional baseball player moves to Fairfield, Connecticut, after his wife dies to raise his daughter away from the city. He moves in with a wealthy family as their housekeeper.
Blossom and her two brothers live with their dad after their mother abandons the family and moves to Paris to start a new life. Even though this show didn't start until 1990, it's important to include, because Blossom and Diff'rent Strokes bookend the phenomenon.
This list is not even close to complete, it just offers the best sample set from '80s sitcoms. It also doesn't account for any of the shows with missing fathers, both because there weren't nearly as many and because the dads were almost never dead or actively trying to abandon their family members in those situations.
So Why Did Studios Start Relying on Dead Moms?
Even with the pile of corpses these family-friendly shows collectively produced, it's important to remember that the trend had to start somewhere. There was a push in the early '80s to redefine the family sitcom by throwing in an additional element to disrupt the normal, nuclear family. Shows like ALF, Small Wonder and Charles in Charge desperately tried to distance themselves from the run-of-the-mill family sitcom by throwing in an alien, a robot, and a Scott Baio, respectively. It makes sense that some shows would try subtracting characters from the traditional family as well, and the mother was an obvious choice.
The only thing between Archie Bunker and a KKK rally was Edith.
In their absence, fathers would be forced to awkwardly fill that role. Just one unpleasant death in the first episode could mean four or five seasons of bewildering sex talks between men and their daughters on the edge of a bed. Hilarious!
But that only explains half of the equation. Even if we know why networks started trying one or two shows with this formula, that still doesn't explain why audiences embraced them so readily, or the nine others, for that matter, that followed over the rest of the decade. To figure out why these shows about dead or neglectful mothers endured instead of sitcoms about robot daughters, we have to look at what was on the minds of Americans at the time. So the big question is ...