Lauren Graham has been playing a single mother on TV for 13 of the last 16 years. From the fast-talking, independent Lorelai Gilmore in Gilmore Girls to Parenthood's sensitive underachiever Sarah Braverman, Graham's career has almost single-handedly elevated the single mother — that sad sack, that cautionary tale — to a protagonist worth investing in dramatically, with humor and interest and a full, complicated arc.
Graham explores that legacy in her book of essays, Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, which came out the same week as Netflix's Gilmore Girls revival Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. She divides her life so far into two acts she calls "Gal About Town" and "The Mom." Her Gals About Town were on Seinfeld, Bad Santa, Law and Order, and NewsRadio, but she hit her Mom phase earlier than most: She was Joan in Evan Almighty, Phyllis in Flash of Genius, Pamela in Max, and Jules in Middle-School. "By the time I was cast as Sarah Braverman on Parenthood," she writes, "playing the mom of two teenagers was age appropriate. But the first time I read Gilmore Girls, I was 31 years old."
If that's hard to understand (and a dispiriting reflection of the roles available to women), Graham's combination of Katharine Hepburn's grand dame confidence with an almost vaudevillian gift for slapstick goes a long way toward explaining how she so convincingly restored the single mother to glamour, great boots, and something other than pathos.
Television moms — even married ones — have historically run the gamut from tolerant and resigned Lois Griffins and Marge Simpsons to nags like Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond to (at their most complex) lonely antagonistic figures like Skylar White in Breaking Bad. Rarely are they either funny or unpredictable (qualities Graham's characters have in spades). The fact is, when it comes to family shows, the TV mom tends to reduce to story furniture. In comedy, she's the straight man for her madcap sons and husbands. In drama, she's the moral yardstick that measures how much a character has drifted off course. A TV mom might fight with her husband when he does something wrong. Otherwise, she mostly chides and corrects and rolls her eyes. She smiles knowingly at her family and weeps when her kids hit milestones. Maternal feeling, on this understanding, is simple and self-evident. And if a TV mom is granted some complicating interiority, viewers start resenting her.
That all started to change in a major way with Roseanne — which, besides being named for the maternal character, accorded her qualities like humor, sarcasm, lust, and resentment. It's no surprise that Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband and fellow writer Daniel Palladino both wrote for Roseanne. Lorelai Gilmore could exist at least in part because Roseanne Conner had made a mother thinkable as a three-dimensional protagonist.
But Roseanne was married, and Lorelai Gilmore wasn't. Funny single mothers in fiction are few, and it's a testament to Lauren Graham's raw comedic talent that she managed to convey the struggles without collapsing them into the typical vocabularies of pathos and heroism.
It was a risky choice. Graham was advised not to play a mother in her early 30s — it was a sure career-killer for any aspiring female actor in Hollywood — but she accepted the challenge, and she's been revitalizing the category ever since, with wit and lightness and depth and great boots. Lorelai Gilmore is one of television's great characters, and not just because of the show's great writing. Graham played her with whimsy and gravitas as a fully realized person whose main commitment may have been motherhood, but whose core wasn't. Lorelai's baseline manic frivolity around those she trusted (like her daughter Rory) could give way to an equally constitutive severity around her parents (a nice breakdown of Graham's facial expressions is here). These are pretty drastic transformations, but they make perfect sense, even if it's a lot of range for one character to cover — especially a mom.
The same is true for Graham's Sarah Braverman, another single mother trying to compensate for a deadbeat father in Parenthood. The character differs from Lorelai Gilmore — she's quieter and more desperate, longs for a deep connection to her children, and is frequently rebuffed. But those struggles are never simply sad or obvious, and Sarah never loses sight of the search for herself.
That Graham made a career of playing single mothers making up for absentee dads is kind of surprising, since Graham — not a mother herself — was raised by her father (her mother left when she was five to pursue her own career). How did she, of all people, so thoroughly populate this weird TV category? Graham is typically modest in her book, but in explaining why she can't play cops in procedurals, she hits on something important: "As an actor person, as well as a person person, I don't think I naturally exude competence," she writes. "I exude more of an 'I'm kind of winging it here, but isn't this fun?' type of a vibe." It's true; Graham's wit, combined with her engaging, confident, committed clumsiness, make her incapable of playing single mothers with the joylessness with which they're so often conceived.
Since the years when Gilmore Girls started, the TV landscape has produced plenty of interesting, complicated single mothers, from Weeds' Nancy Botwin to Pamela Adlon's Better Things. We no longer think of a mother's emotions as pre-scripted and boringly sentimental. A lot of that is thanks to Lauren Graham. It's good to have her back.