Why Did Audiences Love Dead Moms So Much?
It's not fair to say that all the shows listed above were embraced by audiences because they were good. Full House had a successful eight-year run, despite the fact that 99 percent of its jokes were just catch phrases, and the other 1 percent were about people touching Uncle Jesse's hair even though he really didn't want them touching his hair.
A lot of the other shows weren't much better, but something about the family dynamic resonated with audiences, and I don't think it was because the '80s saw an uptick in mom murders. However, the '80s did see a huge uptick in another destructive force on families: divorce. Starting in the '70s and up through the mid-'80s, each state was systematically enacting the "no-fault" divorce law. By 1985, it was legal in every state to get divorced without proving any wrongdoing by either the husband or the wife. As a result, divorce rates soared; around 35 percent of all kids in the U.S. lived with single parents by the end of the '80s. That number was up from 15 percent just a decade earlier. So with a huge chunk of the next generation raised by single parents, no one quite knew what kind of long-term consequences there would be from all that divorce. But they certainly had some worst-case scenarios in mind.
Hint: It's drug abuse.
Drugs were a huge topic at the top of everyone's mind in the 1980s because the Reagan administration spent billions of dollars to put it there. In between each one of the sitcoms on the list above, you were likely to see at least one PSA about how drugs really, really wanted to ruin the rest of your life. Like this one where Pee Wee warns everyone against the dangers of crack.
Pictured: A pale Pee Wee Herman standing next to the weathered hand of a grown man.
But in addition to drugs being a hot-button topic, the '80s also marked the first time that people started changing the discussion around drug use. They were suggesting that drugs didn't always create dysfunctional families; rather, dysfunctional families sometimes encouraged drug use. That's at least part of the reason why the only sitcoms that had entire "Just Say No" episodes were Punky Brewster and Diff'rent Strokes, two shows about orphaned at-risk kids.
So now you have a social climate in the United States where no one quite knows how the collapse of the family institution will affect the kids in the next generation, but they're pretty sure that the answer is: badly. Everyone is at least privately terrified that family is the heart of the social structure, and when it fails, the whole system will fail as well.
Which brings us to that famous commercial where the dad confronts his son about his crayon box full of hardcore narcotics and the son says he learned to do drugs by watching his parents do drugs. No wait, that's not quite right -- he learned to do drugs by watching his father do drugs. The mother is suspiciously absent. Granted, she's credited with snooping in the kid's room and finding the drugs, but the fact that she's not there in the commercial is very telling.
"Your mother wanted to be here for this, but you know she has book club on Tuesdays."
See, the mother already did her part in the battle against drug use, she found them. But when the father is left to provide the discipline alone, the whole thing blows up in his face. He's completely incompetent. Those sitcom creators who first decided to do a domestic comedy without mothers were absolutely right that moms represented the glue of the family. The key ingredient that makes a home a home is the mother. Her absence signifies the dissolution of the family, and the consequence according to this commercial was the greatest fear of the 1980s: When dad is the only adult, everyone is fucked.
What Does This Have to Do With Missing Moms in Sitcoms?
Whether intentionally or not, when sitcoms killed off the most important element of a family, they presented audiences with the precarious situation everyone was privately afraid of: a family on the verge of collapse. But instead of giving audiences the dismal ending where everyone becomes junkies, the sitcoms smiled in the face of all that fear and said, "It's OK. Everything is going to be alright." These shows presented scenarios in which the dissolution of families was sad, yes, but it wasn't going to ruin any of the kids permanently. In fact, nearly every problem could be solved in half an hour, except for the big ones, which had to be solved in an hour spread across two weeks.
Like that episode where Punky Brewster's friends were all murdered in a cave. That took awhile to clean up.
The culmination of the whole phenomenon was in the show Blossom, in which the parents go through a divorce and the oldest son becomes a drug addict. It addresses that collective fear of the '80s in a more literal way than any of the other shows, and then immediately eases that fear by redeeming the son as he gets clean and rejoins the family in the pilot episode.
I think kids, fathers and even mothers took comfort in watching these shows because they suggested that families could still function even after they were fractured by one parent leaving. So it turns out that sacrificing all those moms was one of the kindest things network television could have done for audiences during that decade. And best of all, they probably only did it for the sake of some jokes about dads reluctantly buying training bras.
So thanks, 1980s, you've succeeded again, despite yourself. Though to be fair, you also essentially told an entire generation of people that divorce was no big deal, so I guess you kind of broke even.*
*Not an actual appraisal of debt for all the lasting damage you probably caused.
For more from Soren, check out The 6 Most Baffling Things Every TV Ad Assumes Are True and The 4 Most Unexpected Fan Bases in Pop Culture.