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TV is Finally Getting Real About Parenting

Ten shows with the best takes on the life-ruining potential of kids.
  • Daisy Haggard and Martin Freeman star in Breeders. (FX)
    Daisy Haggard and Martin Freeman star in Breeders. (FX)

    This month's debut of the FX original Breeders has drawn mixed reactions for its unflinching look at how parenthood changes the lives of anyone brave and/or stupid enough to undertake it.

    Starring Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard, Breeders isn't the first to tackle this subject, and just two episodes in (the third airs tonight), it's difficult to assess where it falls among the handful of other shows that have attempted portray TV kids as more than just window dressing or comic relief. But if you're looking for a show that takes a warts and all look at parenting, there are several from the past decade to choose from.

    With that in mind, ordered from least-to-most accurate, here are ten shows from the last decade that have at least tried to get parenting right:

    Had Their Moments

    Up All Night: For a network comedy, Up All Night definitely pulled few punches about how different life after birth can be, especially once it really found its voice midway through the first season. But despite the title and the occasional snarky one-liner about spit-up, both Christina Applegate’s Reagan and Will Arnett’s Chris seemed suspiciously well-groomed and rested for parents of a baby. And while it did subvert traditional TV gender roles, reversing the old tropes so that Mom was a breadwinning doofus and Dad was the secret genius that kept the family sane, it wasn’t exactly the most progressive way the characters could have been developed.

    Raising Hope: Okay, it may be a bit unfair to be judge the realism of a whimsical sitcom about a young single father who’s raising the daughter he conceived via a one-night stand with a serial killer. In fact, Raising Hope, for all its quirks, had some sparks of surprising realness originating from the multigenerational household’s efforts to make the best possible life for little Hope. The show’s best and most heartfelt moments invariably came whenever one or both of Jimmy’s parents (Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt) were able to coach him through daughter-related struggles thanks to perspective they’d gained through their own shortcomings as parents.

    Playing House: Like Raising Hope, USA’s Playing House riffed on the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, with Emma (Jessica St. Clair) moving in with her newly-separated bestie Maggie (Lennon Parham) in order to help raise her soon-to-be-born child. Maggie’s hopes and fears for her baby’s future formed the emotional core of the show’s first season, but after baby Charlotte made her appearance, her presence didn’t seem to meaningfully transform the lives of either Maggie or Emma. With a big enough village on hand, it seemed there was frequently a babysitter available to keep Charlotte out of the A-plot, leaving Maggie and Emma to navigate dating and business ownership without the baby’s complicating presence.

    Frequently Relatable

    Workin’ Moms: Initially, the core group of this Canadian-produced Netflix series represented a broad spectrum of attitudes and perspectives on new-mom-hood, with each character bringing her own mixed bag of flaws and foibles to the story. But as the series has progressed, it’s gotten soapier, and the characters have become broader. Jenny, in particular, underwent a tough transformation. In early episodes, she was ambivalent about her new role as a mother in ways that, if not always forgivable, were at least understandable. By the end of Season 3, she’d almost entirely abdicated custody of her daughter, and most of her storylines focused on the ways she relentlessly (and nigh-sociopathically) abused power at her job.

    SMILF: Don’t let the questionable title mislead you: this Showtime series, created by and starring Frankie Shaw, provided an emotionally honest, frequently edgy take on the struggles of a working-class single mom. Because of its home on premium cable, the subjects it tackled tended to be a little franker and darker than most of its network analogues, from whether sex feels markedly different after a woman has given birth, to how to balance parenting and coping with family members’ substance abuse and mental health issues. The odd digression into fantasy heightens the occasionally bleak realities of Bridgette’s life.

    Painfully Accurate

    Single Parents: It’s strange how few shows ever truly explore how one’s identity as a parent can entirely eclipse every other aspect of who they are as a person, but this star-packed ABC series tackles the issue head-on, as a band of single moms and dads pledge to help each other maintain perspective. Though plotlines have occasionally veered into the absurd (e.g., two parents squaring off to see who can sleep-train a third one’s baby the fastest), a majority of the show’s drama is centered on the "Parents" aspect rather than the "Single" aspect, which is a refreshing change. Whether you’re single or coupled, it’s refreshing to know that someone out there in sitcom-land understands how your child’s relatively strange, small problems can completely take over your life in ways that might have shocked your pre-kid self.

    The Letdown: This Australian-produced Netflix series covered much of the same ground as Workin’ Moms, but with a slightly more grounded tone and a tendency to tackle larger issues. Main character Audrey (Alison Bell) struggled with personal issues like making new mom friends and wanting to return to work, but the show also dove into bigger philosophical questions. The second season included a poignant arc on abortion, approaching the subject from a variety of perspectives with refreshing, non-judgemental honesty.

    Catastrophe: Catastrophe tonally shares some DNA with fellow Amazon Prime series Fleabag. An abundance of dry British wit and the frequently cringe-worthy foibles of deeply flawed characters drive this tale of two strangers who, faced with an accidental pregnancy, decide to try and make it work as a family. And despite the fact that Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) frequently make terrible decisions that impact their relationship and family, the bond that develops between the pair as the series progresses is relatable to parents of all relationship closeness levels. These two are, inextricably, teammates in the game of parenting, no matter what happens.

    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Breeders, Catastrophe, The Letdown, Playing House, Raising Hope, Single Parents, SMILF, Up All Night, Workin' Moms