Season Celebrates the Single Parent

As society changes, networks decide: They're not just for sitcoms anymore

Cover Story: Fall TV

August 22, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There is life beyond reality TV this fall, as evidenced by a handful of fine freshman dramas -- each of which features a single parent.

Is it coincidence or the result of something happening in the culture -- particularly given the way that speaker after speaker at the Democratic National Convention last month invoked the image of single parents? Writers and producers of the new fall dramas say it's a little of both.

WB's Jack & Bobby, (which makes its debut Sept. 12 at 9 p.m.), tells the story of two teen brothers, one of whom will become president of the United States. The boys (Matt Long and Logan Lerman) live with their mother, Grace McCallister (Christine Lahti), an outspoken college professor. Set mostly in contemporary times, the series regularly flashes forward to 2049 with historians and former colleagues assessing the McCallister presidency as if being interviewed in a documentary.

Lahti, the wife of executive producer Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), is marvelous in the pilot, imbuing the role with such nuance that Grace McCallister instantly becomes one of the most multi-faceted, compelling and contradictory characters on television. While she struggles to be a good parent, she also annoys her sons by smoking marijuana. And, despite being popular with her students, she seems to go out of her way to insult and alienate her bosses.

"When we started the process of creating Grace as you see her in the pilot, we were thinking of someone who would be a little more outspoken than you might normally see on television -- someone who has strong opinions and is just a strong, strong woman," said Vanessa Taylor, one of the executive producers and co-writers of the pilot.

Steve Cohen, a Pikesville native and former press aide in the Clinton White House, created Jack & Bobby along with best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer. But it was Taylor and Greg Berlanti (Everwood) with whom they were paired by Schlamme to bring the series to the screen. All parties agree that Taylor is the writer most responsible for shaping Grace.

Personal histories

"Looking back historically, we realized that a lot of our presidents have had incredibly strong mother figures. If they weren't single parents, they were still women of amazing character. And, of course, Virginia Kelly, Bill Clinton's mother, was foremost in our minds," Taylor added.

But there was also a personal element involved: "And then, there's the fact that I was raised by a single mother. That and the fact that my mom was a professor. Yes, I guess that does have something to do with Grace."

Personal history is responsible for the birth of another strong single parent in prime time this fall -- Kevin Hill in the UPN drama of the same name. Hill, played by Taye Diggs, is a high-powered 28-year-old entertainment attorney who suddenly finds himself the parent of an 8-month-old infant when his cousin dies.

Executive producer Nancy Cotton says that Jorge Reyes, the creator of the series (which makes its debut Sept. 29 at 9 p.m.), had a cousin who was similarly thrust into parenthood. Reyes set out to tell that story.

"But that's just the start. Then you take a step back and try to create a character that reflects what members of the audience might be experiencing in their lives," Cotton said.

Moving into dramas

There are two other promising dramas with strong single parents: Clubhouse (which makes its debut Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. on CBS), with Mare Winningham as the mother of a teenager who becomes batboy for a New York baseball team, and Veronica Mars (which makes its debut Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. on UPN), with Enrico Colantoni in the role of single father. There are sitcoms featuring single parents, too, such as Complete Savages (which makes its debut Sept. 24 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC) with Keith Carradine in the role of single father to a brood of unruly sons.

Single parents are not new. They existed in prime time as far back as 1960 when Fred MacMurray played single dad Steve Douglas in ABC's My Three Sons. The working, single mother arrived in 1968 with Julia Baker (Diahann Carroll) in Julia. But single parents existed mostly in sitcoms -- a formula that generally offers a lighter treatment of such issues.

"Maybe it is just a fluke -- all these drama series this year with single parents," Taylor said. "But it could also be that things that exist through time sometimes reach critical mass, and people start thinking about them more -- they sort of come into the zeitgeist."

Taylor says she thinks politicians and television writers both are trying to speak to the same audience, and that may explain this season's single-parent leitmotif.

"Maybe as people try to appeal to women who are independent and in the workplace, they start to explore it dramatically and speak about it at conventions," Taylor said.

"I think it's a good thing that we're starting to have such a public conversation."

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