But we'll get to that later, first the evidence:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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