by Meredith O'Brien
They’re some of the more difficult scenes to watch: Those involving the depiction of children experiencing the impact of their parents’ divorce. In the season finale of Mad Men  last year, set in 1963, Don and Betty Draper had to sit their two young children, Sally and Bobby, down and tell them they were divorcing. It was a raw, heart-rending scene: Sally accused her father of lying when he had told his children that he’d always be there for them. She stormed away, feeling angry, betrayed, scared. The younger child, Bobby started sobbing and wrapped his arms around his father’s legs and begged him not to leave. “Nobody wants to do this,” Don said as he lifted Bobby up and held him in a firm clench as he held back his own tears and his wife, who had wanted the divorce, covered her face.
A handful of episodes into the new season of Mad Men, where it has just turned 1965, Betty is married to another man and is living with him and her children in the house she shared with Don, months past the time when Betty and her husband were supposed to have moved out, according to the divorce decree. The kids are miserable in this house where, as Sally put it, she kept expecting to see her father around every corner. But he’s not there.
Betty, who doesn’t seem very happy in her marriage, is frequently shown berating her daughter. She even humiliated the girl in front of her new mother-in-law during Thanksgiving dinner by shoving food into Sally’s mouth, which Sally spit out onto the plate. (Betty led Sally away from the table and pinched her.) Later, Sally, feeling powerless, tried to sneak off to call her father on the telephone, but her mother caught her and warned her not to tell Don what’d happened at Thanksgiving. Meanwhile Don has been floundering, lost, despondent, mostly drunk and frequently frustrated from being prevented from seeing his children, who are caught between their new family and staying overnight in their dad’s small, dark bachelor pad with a father who’s lost his moorings.
While observing the difficult emotional costs wrought by the Draper divorce -- particularly watching the children cope with it -- I started thinking about families, divorce and television shows. Though I think the superb TV show Once and Again , which ran from 1999-2002 and starred Sela Ward, was THE definitive show which deftly and searingly dramatized how the aftershocks from a divorce can rock a family, there are several current programs, in addition to Mad Men, which are dealing with divorce with varying degrees of success and emotional depth.
Some shows which are doing a fairly good job of showing that divorce isn’t simply about the romantic disillusionment between two adults include HBO’s Hung , and TNT’s Men of a Certain Age . I would’ve put The New Adventures of Old Christine into the mix, but, sadly, CBS unceremoniously dumped the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy this spring.
The entire reason the lead character on Hung, Ray Drecker -- a high school teacher and coach of the baseball team -- became a high-end male escort is because of the fact that he’s divorced and wants to see his kids. He’s dead broke, especially after a fire at his house (he’d let his insurance lapse because of his cash shortage) left him with a seemingly insurmountable mountain of home repair bills. And because he was forced to live in a tent in his yard until his house was fixed, he couldn’t have his twin teens live with him, even part-time, until he scraped together enough money to complete the repairs. (Think of Ray as the anti-Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights.)
His ex-wife Jess -- who has the irritated boy-girl teen twins who have trouble fitting in at school, living with her – is unhappily remarried to a goofy dermatologist who wants to have children of his own and lies about how much money they do or don’t have. While the show focuses largely on Ray’s exploits as a prostitute, there are ample scenes of his children feeling his absence and expressing their desire to move back in with Dad.
Men of a Certain Age is much more of a mainstream kind of show. The lone separated dad, Ray Romano’s character Joe Tranelli, doesn’t prostitute himself, but getting his hands on money and being a separated father of two are the driving forces that make him do things he knows he shouldn’t, like returning to gambling in order to cobble together enough money to buy the condo his children want so they can stay overnight with him, seeing that they really couldn’t do that when he’d been living in a hotel room since the separation. His children weren’t adjusting all that well to having Dad out of the house as Joe’s son started having anxiety problems and his daughter was having difficulties with a boy with which Joe had to deal from afar. The pain in Joe’s eyes when he saw his son paralyzed with fear, the desperation Joe demonstrated when he was counting on his wagers to come through in order to make a better life for him and his kids all made for poignant moments.
A handful of other shows -- like Private Practice , Brothers & Sisters , Grey’s Anatomy  and Army Wives  – all feature parents who’ve divorced, only the impact of the divorce on the family isn’t all that well developed or explored in depth.
Take Private Practice’s most recent season which had the 15-year-old daughter of the formerly married Sam and Naomi Bennett get pregnant and marry her baby daddy before the baby was born. Her parents vigorously disagreed on whether to support their daughter’s decisions to have the baby and get married, but Sam and Naomi could’ve had those same disagreements had they still been married. The way the divorce has been handled on Private Practice seemed to be more in terms of what it was like to lose their romantic partner with less emphasis on their daughter’s experiences.
It’s a similar story on Grey’s Anatomy where Miranda Bailey got divorced some time ago. While in the early days of the marital separation, Miranda’s toddler son started getting physical in daycare and acting out, lately, we have seen neither hide nor hair of her ex-husband nor heard much of anything about custody issues or her son. Brothers & Sisters has done a better job providing a slightly more well-rounded portrait of what it’s like for kids who had to watch their at-home father and a working mom duke it out in divorce court over custody and argue over what’s “best” for the children. But in the most recent season, the kids were largely absent, with the exception of one early episode when the daughter of the divorced working mom lashed out during a science fair at her mother.
Army Wives has been concentrating its efforts on the how being divorced has affected a former at-home home mom of two, Pamela Moran, who had to move off the Army post and get a job after she and her husband ended their marriage. Their kids have had to be shuttled back and forth between the two homes, but the emphasis has been on the mother’s experience, not theirs.
Right now, I give kudos to the 1960s era Mad Men as, ironically, providing the deeper, more meaningful portrait of families and children dealing with divorce. Do you think any shows have done a particularly good or bad job depicting the impact of divorce on families?