TV TIME: Salute to the Mother-in-Law

This Mother's Day, while we salute our own moms, wives, and friends who are mothers to their own children, let's show appreciation for the oft-neglected mothers-in-law by taking a look at some memorable classic television episodes featuring these noble women. After all, the medium has a tradition of portraying a wide range of mother-in-law types from mean to downright evil.

Gilligan's Island, 'Gilligan's Mother in Law': OK, so not all of the TV in-laws are hardened battle axes. Many of them just want what's best for their offspring. An example is the unnamed native matriarch in this episode who canoes over to the castaways' island with her hubby and daughter to find a potential new addition to the family where the young lass falls for Gilligan!

The premise is everyone talks Gilligan into agreeing to the marriage so he can go with the family to their island, see if they have a radio, and call for help. That's not the worst idea, but the Professor understands the native language well enough to describe arcane wedding rituals and tests of valor, yet he never thinks to, you know, just ask the natives himself if they have a radio. Maybe he's too intimidated by Henny Backus to bring it up in casual conversation.

Since this future mother-in-law does little besides grunt, and there is much more focus on the bride-to-be, this might seem a weak choice for our feature until you realize she is played by Henny Backus, the real-life wife of the man playing Thurston Howell III. There aren't many other opportunities to see Jim Backus' wife with a nose ring.

Much of this episode's humor is a bit dated today, including the basic portrayal of the natives as 'savages;' the poor actress playing the young girl being married off is mocked for her weight and overall appearance. One thing that never gets old, however, is the sight of a castaway running away from something at super speed while frantic music plays in the background, and we get that every few minutes in this one! Characters flee alligators, unseen growling animals, dangerous weapons, and, of course, the scariest threat of all: the possibility of marriage.

I Love Lucy, 'Lucy's Mother-in-Law': We're familiar with the classic stereotype of a woman built like a Sherman tank swinging a rolling pin at her cowering son-in-law, but another pop culture staple is the nervous wife trying to please her husband's mom. In this episode, Lucy frets over a sudden visit from Ricky's mother.

In fact, Mrs. Ricardo seems to be a delightful woman, but Lucy is frustrated because of the language barrier. Lucy hasn't bothered to learn much Spanish during her marriage, so naturally she goes for the universal communication method of speaking slower and louder. Somehow, this doesn't work, and Lucy feels they lack a real connection. It just so happens Ricky has hired a fake mind reading act for his nightclub show, one dependent on a hidden transistor radio. Lucy plants the purported psychic, who speaks Spanish, in her kitchen so he can feed her lines when Mrs. Ricardo and a few friends come to the apartment.

It's a fun episode with some wacky mishaps, but I would give a week's salary to see 25 minutes of Fred Mertz making sarcastic comments about Ethel's mother. This doesn't have that kind of edge, but it's sweet seeing Lucy try to win over her mother-in-law. She causes quite a scene with her bungled attempt to pass herself off as a Spanish speaker, but Mrs. Ricardo proves once again why television is so much better than the real world. Through Ricky, she says anyone who would go through so much trouble to please her is wonderful. Does this ever work in reality? 'You know, you lied to me and must have thought I was a complete numbskull to fall for this...but, by golly, you went to so much trouble, well, you're A-OK with me!'

My Little Margie, 'Vern's Mother-in-Law': One great recurring bit I recall from years of faithful TV Guide reading occurred whenever the lead performer on a series played another character in a given episode. Inevitably, it would be described as a 'rare dual role' despite the fact it seemed to happen several times each season and in countless reruns.

The average episode of My Little Margie has enough sitcom wackiness to fill several TV Guides, so it shouldn't surprise you to learn that in this flashback episode, Margie's late mother, Cathy, is played by Margie herself, Gale Storm. But what is even rarer than a rare double role? Well, Storm also plays Margie's grandmother (and her dad Vern's eventual mother-in-law), making this is an even rarer triple role!

Grandma was a meddler who got into more than her fair share of mischief. When telling her granddaughter the story of how he gave Vern Albright his first job, Mr. Honeywell says, 'Like anything she was involved in, it meant a rough time for all concerned.' How would you like to marry into THAT family? Fortunately for Vern, this tendency apparently skips a generation, as Cathy doesn't seem to indulge in such shenanigans.

Grandmother Margie worries her daughter is dating an unambitious non-entity, so she schemes with a young (well, younger -- no toupee of Earthly origin can make Clarence Kolb look less then 65) Mr. Honeywell to test his mettle. Vern's just out of college and doesn't have a job yet, which concerns Grandma, so she persuades Honeywell to offer him a position but give him a hard time and make him work for it--'test his perseverance, his ingenuity and aggressiveness.'

It's only a matter of time before the scheme-ee becomes the schemer, and when Cathy discovers the ruse and smartens Vern up, they blackmail Honeywell into helping them teach Grandma a lesson. A more 'sophisticated' show might accomplish this by having all the characters sit down and discuss the consequences of manipulating human emotions under false pretenses, but fortunately Margie has the characters douse Mr. Honeywell with a bottle of ketchup and claim to have shot him.

Vern is able to win his future in-law's endorsement as a husband, as everyone involved learns a lesson. Well, the lesson about not meddling in people's affairs doesn't really take, but Vern gets some valuable insight on the ineffectiveness of ketchup as a substitute for blood.

The Flintstones, 'Mother-in-Law's Visit': I've saved the best for next to last, as this has always been one of my favorite episodes of the series. Fred and Wilma receive a visit from her mother. Pearl Slaghoople is the kind of woman often described as a 'force of nature,' which is usually a euphemism for 'domineering loudmouth.' She's in Bedrock to help Wilma while she's expecting, but she's not planning on sitting around knitting baby booties, not if it'll take time away from her favorite pastime: insulting Fred.

Wilma shames Fred into pretending to like his 'dear, sweet mother-in-law,' and on his way to the airport he repeats it over and over again. Soon he almost believes it. However, when he greets her at the gate and says he loves her, she accuses him of dipping into the cactus juice. After he tells her she looks beautiful and plants a kiss, she smacks him on the noggin with her purse.

Fred's intentions are good, but Pearl won't give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, granted, on the way home from the airport, he does get his mother-in-law admitted to the maternity ward due to a misunderstanding with a policeman, and then ditches her at the hospital, but still, he deserves a break.

Soon, Fred wants to raise a little extra money with the baby on the way - though I suspect he just wants to get out of the house - so he decides to moonlight as a cab driver at night. Because neither Wilma nor Mr. Slate wants him working two jobs, he disguises himself. The brilliant costume of black vest, green cap, and wild dark mustache is enough to fool Barney, but his fake 'cabbie accent' makes this a classic episode. Hey, can anyone with a February 1963 edition of TV Guide tell us if this counted as a 'rare dual role?'

As Fred leaves to drive the taxi, Pearl assumes he is abandoning his wife to go have a good time. She vows to track him down and tries to hail a taxi. What follows is one of the best Flintstones sequences ever, with Fred in disguise driving her around town in a wild goose chase while talking about what a great guy he is. 'Sure, lady, everyone knows Fred Flintstone -- swell fella!'

They hit all the hot spots in town, like the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo lodge and Bedrock Pool Parlor, where 'the cabbie' hustles her at a game of billiards. At Bedrock Bowl, Fred rolls four strikes in a row to beat her for double or nothing on the meter. Best of all, while still in disguise, he bets his mother-in-law that Fred is at the library reading up on how to be a good father, then pulls the old switcheroo on her when they get there.

When the night is through, Fred has humiliated his nemesis and taken her for the whole 25 bucks he needs to get a new crib. She admits she had Fred wrong all these years and apologizes. As a kid, I was overjoyed to see him get one over on his combative mother-in-law. Years before I knew the slightest thing about marriage, TV watching had already instilled a potent wariness of in-laws. This episode taught me anything was possible, even with the most unfair mother-in-law, as long as I cooperated with my wife, was respectful, and had a thick, bushy fake mustache.

Let's just ignore the end of the episode, when Barney spills the beans on Fred's deception and ruins the whole charade. I have to question Wilma's views on the situation, though. As her mother chases her husband around the yard, clobbering him repeatedly over the head with a broom, Wilma flashes a bemused smile to Betty and says, 'Those two are only happiest when they're fighting.' She's not concerned about bringing a child into this kind of environment? My advice to Fred is hold onto that disguise. Maybe he can raise enough extra money to build an underground bunker where he can hide when Pearl is on the warpath.

Bewitched, 'Solid Gold Mother-in-Law': I know many fans consider Samantha Stevens' mother Endora the quintessential television mother-in-law. I confess, I never got into the series. Too many things about it irritated me. I never understood why Darrin was so touchy about using magic, and I never understood why Sam and Darrin tolerated Endora's endless belittling. I mean, Ralph Kramden had issues with Alice's mother, but at least he shot back with his own bon mots. I always wondered why Darrin didn't tell Endora to go fly a broomstick.

In honor of this year's Mother's Day, I decided to watch an Endora-centric episode to see if the older, more mature me could appreciate the talents of Agnes Moorehead's iconic performance. 'Solid Gold Mother-in-Law' begins with Endora helping Tabitha ride a pony. The horse is a thoughtful dream gift from a grandmother to her granddaughter, only Samantha figures out it's actually a transformed Darrin.

After Endora changes him back, he doesn't confront her, but makes an ultimatum to Sam before walking out in a huff, looking for his self-respect, or at least a carrot stick.

Endora continues to needle Darrin, showing up in an animated picture frame and stalking him all over his office. A big shot potential client at the ad agency, a home appliances magnate, sees the photo on the desk and is stunned to see a man loves his mother-in-law so much. Mr. Gregson believes in the ideal of a perfect American home and is impressed by Darrin's devotion. Eager to please, Larry Tate invites everyone over to the Stevens' for dinner so that Gregson can meet Endora.

At dinner, Larry's ridiculous efforts to ingratiate himself by talking up his own love for his own mother-in-law infuriates his wife, who thinks he is mocking her. Gregson sees their tough situation, but professes admiration for Darrin and declares he wants him guiding his campaign. A jealous Larry thinks Darrin planned to undercut the agency to start his own shop and calls him a backstabber.

Darrin has a brilliant strategy for Gregson and his 0 million of advertising, but he graciously (foolishly, if you ask me) wants to give Larry the credit until someone comes to the door asking where he should put Darrin's office furniture. Infuriated, Darrin rediscovers his spine and declares he will take all the credit himself after all. Inexplicably, Samantha tries to talk him out of it, and when that doesn't work, she magically changes all of the paperwork so Mr. Gregson thinks the outstanding marketing campaign he loves so much is Larry's work.

McMahon-Tate gets the business, and Darrin gets a thank you from Larry, plus the suggestion that he might be made a partner...someday...if he keeps working hard. I think I had Endora all wrong. Sure, she makes life miserable for her son-in-law, but at least she is up front about it. Larry is a duplicitous, selfish egotist. Most appalling is the behavior of Samantha, who uses her powers to sabotage her husband's big break so he can continue to toil as an underappreciated cog at the agency. Endora comes out of this looking like one of the show's most honorable character!

Upon further review, perhaps the mother-in-law deserves a more exalted position in television history. These characters aren't always perfect, but look at who they share the screen with: deceitful, underhanded schemers looking out for their own interests. When it comes down to it, are TV's mothers-in-law really so much worse?

Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.