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Mama Mia!

Tonight I had an epiphany. It happened while I was sitting on my couch, eating an orange -- the exact moment when life's greatest truth was stripped bare and laid before my glazed, slack-jawed stare.

Nothing is ever anybody's fault.

My ass is a bit large? Can't be because I eat Twinkies and never exercise. I forget to return a very important phone call? Clearly, the fault lies in my stars, not myself. I whip out a sawed-off shotgun and open fire on the lunchtime crowd at Planet Hollywood? Obviously, society is to blame.

Naturally, I have NBC and its wonderfully stirring TV movies to thank for this latest and greatest revelation -- specifically, the comically titled "What Kind of Mother Are You?" Not many films have the courage to get to the heart, the crux, the very pith of the questions that trouble Middle America. And yet "What Kind of Mother Are You" boldly poses the question that has kept many a parent awake at night -- "What would happen if I had my snot-nosed punk daughter locked up in prison for the night to teach her a lesson, only to discover through a series of corny plot contrivances that she had fallen through the cracks of our criminal justice system and been sentenced to a life of hard labor in juvenile hall?"

The answer to that question apparently being, "You and she will become the subject of a lousy TV movie on NBC."

(And yes, I realize that dumping a hearty helping of derision upon a TV movie named "What Kind of Mother Are You?" is like stepping in front of the slowpitch softball machine at the local battling cage shouldering a two-by-four. But someone's got to cast aspersions upon even the most banal aspects of popular culture, and if I'm the man to do it, then so be it. After all, even the mangiest, most disease-ridden cur still has to be put down...)

So here's the plot of "What Kind of Mother Are You?" in a nutshell, because frankly, that's about all the space it deserves: a shrill, obnoxious teenage goof begins dating a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and together, in the spirit of heady joyfulness that so dominates today's youth, they decide to do some crimes: shoplifting, breaking and entering, spray-painting "Kelly and Brian Forever" on a prominently displayed billboard. (So clearly, we're not dealing with criminal masterminds here. I mean why not just leave your address, directions to your home and notarized photos of you spray-painting the billboard for the authorities to find at the scene of the crime?)

The girl's hapless mother is at her wit's end, (and clearly, it wasn't that far of a trip) so when her slack-jawed offspring belts her in the face, the push-over mother decides a little tough love is what's called for. So on the advice of a well- meaning, but dim-witted cop, the cluebag mother decides the fruit of her loins should spend a night in the hole in an effort to scare her straight... or at least set the movie's plot in motion.

The hapless mother in question is played by Mel Harris, whom I always confuse with TV's Mel Sharples, as played by the late Vic Tayback. And that's really a shame. Because Mel Sharples never stood for any of that crap. If someone burnt the beans on the griddle or if that spitfire Flo was giving him sass, then, dagnabbit, Mel Sharples would respond in kind. Kiss my grits, indeed. But not Mel Harris -- her back-talking twit of a teenage daughter just raises and eyebrow and lickspittle Mel is a whimpering mass of self-doubt and recrimination.

The sneering little ingrate posing for a daughter is played by the eldest child on "The Nanny," so it should come as no surprise that she's turned to a life of crime. Wouldn't you be driven over the edge if you had to listen to Fran Drescher on a regular basis?

Now keep in mind, the sawed-off little runt was only supposed to spend a night in lockdown, to be released to the custody of the dopey Mel Harris the next morning. But through a clerical error that's never really explained lest the viewers have to think too hard, a lummox of a desk sergeant refuses to free the simpering teen to her equally simpering mother. Instead she's held until a court hearing a few days later... which Mel Harris misses through another ill-explained clerical error and which means another week in solitary for her understandably perturbed daughter, who is in quite a bad temper indeed by the time the next hearing rolls around so she shouts at her mother in front of the judge, who wonders why Mel Harris missed the first hearing the first place and...

I think you see where I'm going with this.

The long-and-short of the preceeding run-on sentence is that the cruel fates really deal Mel and her reprobate daughter a bad hand, and after a series of snafus of biblical plague-sized proportions, the daughter is sentenced to a minimum of eight months in juvenile hall. Mel can't phone her worthless spawn and is restricted to two hour visits on the weekend. In the meantime, the court-appointed psychologist assigned to rehabilitating the dopey child is so melodramatically sinister, all she's missing is a black cape a mustache to twirl as she chortles evilly.

Surprisingly, the psychologist is the most sympathetic character.

I don't think you have to spend two hours of your life watching "What Kind of Mother Are You?" like I did to realize that this is one of those movies which would be over in about five minutes if every character in it weren't dumb as a post -- and that assessment is quite insulting to the posts of the world, many of whom are able to make many valuable contributions to their communities.

If only the desk sergeant weren't such a clueless load, then Mel's delinquent brat would have been sprung from the joint. If only the judge weren't such a joyless fascist, then he would have done the right thing and ordered the precocious youngling released forthwith, or at the very least would have ordered the immediate execution of Mel and her daughter. And if only Mel had just taken the wayward progeny out behind the woodshed for a justly deserved ass-whuppin' in the first place, then I could have spent the evening watching pro wrestling instead.

But the sergeant is a load. The judge is a prick. And actually imposing discipline upon the reckless youngster is unthinkable to soft-hearted Mel. And so the exploits of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and "The Natural" Ric Flair must wait for another evening.

What is most objectionable, however, is not the characters' inability to function in the world as you and I know it nor the cheesiness of the plot nor even the aforementioned lack of Vic Tayback. What puts the burr in my saddle, the fly in my ointment, the Bisquick in my short stack of pancakes is the inability of Mel Harris and her numbskulled kid to realize their own culpability in their present plight.

When Mel's bantling turns to a life of crime through ill- conceived acts of vandalism, does Mel cast a disparaging eye upon her own child-rearing skills? No... clearly, her little whelp's boyfriend is to blame for turning her to the dark side. And of course, that dopey beat cop and the fat- assed desk sergeant are the reason the kid remains unjustly behind bars. And if that judge weren't such a blockhead and the public defender a mooncalf and the legal aide attorney a nitwit, Mel reasons, this whole incident could have been wrapped up in no time. Not to mention that Mel's well-meaning but hair-brained second husband who can't even pony up the cash to find a competent barrister to spring his stepdaughter from the hoosgow and that her own mother is a petulant nag. And of course, Mel is such a lousy mother to begin with because her first husband beat her frequently until he blew his own head off. Why, it's amazing she lasted this long in the face of the global conspiracy against Mel Harris.

Mel's papoose is no better. Throughout the course of the movie, she defies Mel, she makes faces at Mel, she plants a broadside across Mel's jaw. She bickers in front of the judge and berates Mel in front of friend and foe alike. And then, she wonders why she finds herself in the fix she's in.

Perhaps it's just me and my cock-eyed value system, but if I found myself in a juvenile prison facility and a fat girl named Amber had just beaten me bloody in the restroom for spilling food on her in the prison mess hall, well it would certainly give me reason for a moment of introspective soul-searching. "What did I do to get myself in this situation?" I might well ask myself. "How can I change my behavior to improve my circumstances for the better? Might it be a flaw in _my_ nature that caused a fat girl named Amber to beat me bloody in the restroom just now?" And so on.

But not the kid in "What Kind of Mother Are You?" who apparently places no stock in the old adage about the unexamined life not being worth living. Instead, she hurls epithets at poor, henpecked Mel.

"Being in jail is now worse than living with you, Mom," the sneering youth mutters. Or at least, no worse than appearing in a sitcom with Fran Drescher.

Toward the end of the movie, Mel lets loose with a rather unconvincing mea culpa. All this fussin' and a feudin' was her fault, as it turns out.

"I've tried to decide who to blame," a moist-eyed Mel says, mainly so that the movie can end on time and we don't have to bump the Evening News. "The police... Kelly's boyfriend, even my own mother. but the truth is, Your Honor I'm the one to blame and I am sorry."

Okay, the judge says. Here's your kid back. Roll credits. Court adjourned.

But Mel's last minute 'fessing-up rings particularly hollow when one considers that the last hour and fifty minutes has spent bewailing how Dame Fortune and her evil henchmen -- the boyfriend, the desk sergeant, the judge, the legal aide attorney, the abusive first husband and the useless second one -- have all had it in for Mel and child. If your a keen-eyed reporter -- or even a reporter whose keen-eyes have been dulled by too much Bushmill's -- you may spot a trend here.

With the exception of Mel's mother, the public defender and the sinister yet lovable court-appointed psychologist, everyone to blame for Mel's woes has an XY chromosome series. This is keeping with a consistent pattern in NBC TV movies where the harbingers of death, mayhem and bloodshed are invariably male. In "Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?" Tori Spelling is harassed by a would-be beau. In those "Where the Hell are My Kids" movies, more often than not, it's Dad or Uncle Ray or Lou the Barber who spirit off the kids of folks like Cybill Shepherd or Markie Post or Marg Hellenberger. And here in "What Kind of Mother Are You?" it's the kind of folks who watch sports on TV and drink beer and buy power tools that stand between Mel Harris and familial happiness.

Which brings us the answer to the titular question "What Kind of Mother Are You?" the answer in Mel Harris' case is obviously a piss-poor one. After all, when faced with the choice of bringing her offspring into a world filled to the brim with those devious men, Mel should have done the right thing and smothered the tot in the crib when she had the chance.

Or leave the kid to be raised by Fran Drescher. Whichever, really.


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