The XX Factor

From Grimm to Revenge, Bad Mothers Return to TV

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Kelly Burkhardt in NBC’s Grimm.

Scott Green/NBC.

The fall television season is starting off early this year (buoyed by the Olympics), and already from NBC we have depressed radio DJs and a monkey riding a tiny ambulance. But the most entertaining show they’ve debuted early is the returning supernatural cop thriller Grimm, which features a guy named Nick who discovers that in addition to human crooks, he has the ability to spot Buffy-like monsters and an ancestral obligation to take them out. And when the show returned last night, Grimm added a new character archetype who’s also popping up on ABC’s Revenge this fall: the long-absent mother who returns to help her abandoned child kick ass.

On Grimm, Nick believed that his mother, Kelly, died in the same accident that claimed his father, which may explain why he’s not exactly delighted to have her show up at his house in full-on ninja mode, even if she does stick a knife in the creature who’s after him. After rolling said monster to check for signifying tattoos and almost putting another knife in Monroe, a werewolf who helps Nick solve crimes, Kelly tries to figure out a way to relate to the son she barely knows when they’re not brawling around his neat little home in Portland, Ore.

“That’s Juliette? She’s very pretty. How long have you two been together?” she asks solicitously in the midst of the rubble she’s helped pile up in Nick’s living room while picking up a cracked picture of Nick’s girlfriend, Juliette. “Where have you been for 18 years?” her son asks. “I went after those responsible for killing your father and my friend,” Kelly tells Nick. “I had no idea how long it would take.” But when Nick isn’t particularly receptive to the idea that his mother was off on a quest for justice, she goes into domestic overdrive, trying to make breakfast, burning toast while focusing on pancakes, cleaning up the house she wrecked, and launching into a family history that involves childhood nightmare hunts and cheerful tales of monster castration.

It’s not going very well until Mama Grimm and Nick start chasing beasties together. Nick, as it turns out, is a grown man who doesn’t need his mother’s help to run his household, and she can’t make up for years of weekend breakfasts with a batch of burned bread and some fast-tracked domesticity. With Juliette in the hospital, Hank—the cop Nick normally works with—holed up with a shotgun and in absolute terror, and Monroe off trying to cure Juliette, what Nick needs is a partner. And it’s fun to see Kelly stride confidently into that breach, sticking fingers into holes in dead guys, popping open secret drawers in the trailer where Nick stores his magical supplies, and reminiscing about family weapons. Moms, it turns out, aren’t only good for pancakes and childhood reminiscences.

Revenge doesn’t return until Sept. 30, but ABC’s soap about members of the 1 percent shivving each other in the Hamptons seems set to follow a similar course. Jennifer Jason Leigh is set to join the cast as the long-presumed-dead mother of Emily Thorne (Emily Van Camp), who’s been wreaking havoc on the members of an elite clique of financiers and the people who work for them who she believes set up her father and sent him to prison—where he was murdered—for laundering money for terrorists. Revenge producer Mike Kelley told Entertainment Weekly that he pictured Emily’s mother as formidable if, like her daughter, perhaps not unscarred by their collective ideal. And what she’s been up to while Emily’s been causing all sorts of trouble remains a mystery, but the prospect of mother and daughter, veteran actress and appealing newcomer, teaming up to take on the formidable Grayson clan is a dishy one.

But both of these shows are on the verge of making novel points, especially in a pop culture world full of absent mothers who have little or no impact on plucky main characters who have grown up without them. Fathers get to leave in service of the greater good without having to come back, prostrate themselves before their children, and shore up the gender credentials that prove they’re qualified to be parents—why shouldn’t some fictional mothers get pulled away on quests, too? And sometimes what children need from the mothers who left them isn’t a quota of tuckings-in and favorite meals but a chance to forge some new memories and the wisdom and strength their mothers gained along the way that can help their children complete their own hero’s journey.