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Moms as TV's imperfect role models: 'Mildred Pierce,' 'Body of Proof,' 'Nurse Jackie' and 'The United States of Tara'

Television these days loves the antihero. ¶ That's the character who is clearly the most sympathetic, compelling person on the screen, despite looking an awful lot like the bad guy. ¶ Murderous gangster and put-upon dad Tony Soprano. Ruthlessly egotistical and hopelessly wounded romantic Gregory House. The serial killer who targets murderers, Dexter Morgan. ¶ But what happens when ambitious TV shows apply that touch to an institution traditional as Donna Reed, Claire Huxtable and Carol Brady? ¶ What happens when they turn mothers into antiheroes? ¶ Here's a few answers, examining new visions of motherhood more dangerous, conflicted and tragic than we've seen before. ¶ After watching these shows, you may never see a mom in quite the same way again.

The Martyr Mom: 'Mildred Pierce'

(Debuted Sunday at 9 p.m., airing the next four weeks on HBO)

You may have already read the avalanche of critical praise buoying director Todd Haynes' lavishly produced, if leisurely paced miniseries based on James M. Cain's classic novel. Kate Winslet is a middle-class mom with two kids in Depression-era America, fighting to avoid financial ruin after separating from a cheating husband. She turns a stint as a waiter into a booming restaurant business, all the while fretting that her snobby, spoiled oldest daughter will discover the working-class roots of their success.

But Winslet's real problem, as the hard-working yet emotionally naïve title character, is her devotion to those destined to betray her; particularly brittle offspring Veda (True Blood's Evan Rachel Wood). We never truly learn why poor Mildred is so devoted to a child who hates her — Veda's freakout when a noted piano teacher rejects her is epic, blaming her always-supportive mother for her failures.

Still, Haynes' deliberate character study becomes a perplexing lesson; by excelling at all the traditional talents of motherhood — from cooking to unconditional love — all Winslet's Pierce earns is callous disregard from those who should value her most.

The Anti-Mom: 'Nurse Jackie' and 'The United States of Tara'

(Debuts at 10 and 10:30 tonight on Showtime)

These two shows may be the oddest comedies now on television; sharply drawn character studies that mine bitter laughter from the absurdity of their circumstances.

In Jackie, Sopranos alum Edie Falco is a top emergency room nurse with a raging painkiller addiction, a lover at work and a get-it-done attitude that leads to lots of rule-breaking on the job. Tara gives us Toni Collette as a middle-aged mom with multiple personalities in Kansas, returning to college to finish her degree only to encounter a psychology professor who doesn't believe her malady is real (played with heaping helpings of condescension by arch Brit comic Eddie Izzard).

Both characters are antimoms, leaving the maternal stuff to others in the family. Instead, they are the ones getting high, having psychological breakdowns or sleeping around, while the hunky husbands in their lives are forced to care for the kids and wonder how long the craziness can go on.

It's a delicious twist on the typical antihero formula, allowing middle-aged women a little freedom to play while the guys fret on the sidelines.

The Repentant Mom: 'Body of Proof'

(Debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC, WFTS-Ch. 28)

In this late-debuting network TV series, Desperate Housewives alum Dana Delany is a hotshot surgeon brought low by a car accident that destroys her operating chops and leaves just one gig left: county coroner.

She's also a mom seeking redemption. Having ignored her husband and kids while building her career, she's trying to make amends now that she's off the fast track. But telling your loved ones you're ready to give them time now that your career is over doesn't play well, leaving Delany a driven, guilty figure trying to prove her earnest intent while tearing into a new career challenge.

All this would be so much more compelling if it weren't wrapped in such an outlandish series, bending a predictable police procedure around Delany's charisma and talent for wearing designer duds.

ABC's lackluster series mostly teaches us that the wilds of premium cable may be a much better environment for subverting the traditional mother figure. Hard to break boundaries when you're chasing the CSI demographic.

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@FreeNYTimes on Twitter: The bratty part of me wants to love a Twitter feed dedicated to defeating the New York Times online paywall taking effect today, limiting nonsubscribers to 20 articles per month. But since I want newspapers to actually make money, I've got to compare this to coaching people on shoplifting. Always a bad idea.

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Moms as TV's imperfect role models: 'Mildred Pierce,' 'Body of Proof,' 'Nurse Jackie' and 'The United States of Tara' 03/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 27, 2011 7:03pm]
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