I’m not the biggest television viewer (weight jokes aside), but I’ve been noticing a trend for years about the representation of television fathers. And guys, it’s not good. Even in my youth, I remember seeing negative paternal role models on television. I wanted to analyze some of the past and present television fathers. Most notably the bad ones, since that’s what stood out to me, even when I was a child.
Since I know I’m already losing your attention, I’ll say this right off the bat – Bill Cosby played an idiot. And even though the black community was enamoured with The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby really didn’t do any favors for fathers of the world.
I knew that’d keep you around.
The Cosby Show was great. Don’t get me wrong. It was ultimately a warm and positive show. But Bill Cosby’s character, Cliff Huxtable was a total butt-bag. He spent most of his time trying to eat hoagies and not hire a plumber. His firm but fair wife, Clair, mothered the kids and Cliff, catching Cliff in as many schemes as their children. When Cliff wasn’t blaming missing food on his kids, or not listening to his wife’s pleas for him to call a real fix-it man, he did dole out some good fatherly advice. But it was clear who ran the household. And to think, Cliff Huxtable was a doctor. He got to make both fathers and doctors look like fools.
As a bonus, Bill Cosby is now the creator of a kids show called Little Bill where the main character, a boy named, coincidentally enough, Bill, is a completely self-absorbed dick to everyone. He rarely learns a lesson. But on the bright side, Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby’s wife on The Cosby Show, voices Little Bill’s mother. It is kind of understood that Bill Cosby wrote these books-turned-cartoon about his own son. Which kind of blows, since the character of Little Bill is such a loud-mouth tattle-tale jack-ass.
And it’s true, that in most television shows, you won’t find a completely absent, drinking-beer-in-the-garage-instead-of-fathering dad, but for a couple years, you did get Tim Allen’s similarly-named character on Home Improvement. Tim plays a character named…Tim, based on…himself. Allen decided on this route: husband and/or kids have problem. Wife solves all potential problems. Husband learns in every episode that being a real man means never learning from the past and always keeping a foot in your mouth while masquerading behind muscle cars tight “property of” t-shirts. Without wife Jill Taylor, Tim would have paid more attention to his cars than his kids, and we’d have been watching a spin-off show called I Hate You Dad, But Cocaine Is Delicious.
Last on my bad list – Ray Romano on Everybody Loves Raymond. We’re again introduced to a husband so immature that he often learns lessons from his three young children…that is, when he’s not being a complete pushover to every whim of his overbearing mother. Ray’s wife Deborah is depicted as a little crazy herself, but only in respect to Ray’s mother’s antics. Halfway through the show’s lifeline, Ray’s brother, Robert, gets married as well, and though his wife is introduced seasons before as a mousy woman, she begins to dig her heels in and take charge as Robert, playing the part of the literally giant oaf, regresses back into a “momma’s boy” as his wife begs him to grow up and make adult decisions.
I’m going to exempt 24‘s Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) from the list. Although he got his daughter kidnapped and I’m pretty sure his wife is killed on account of his actions, he’s like, a secret agent or something. You should know that if you’re related to a secret agent, you’re in trouble. I’m also exempting Ed O’Neill’s Al Bundy from Married with Children because both he and his wife Peggy were morons, so clearly no one was picking on daddy.
For bonus points, I thought I’d throw in arguably the most popular television show in our generation, The Simpsons. I don’t really need to explain to you why Homer Simpson was a buffoon. But to be fair, cartoons are meant to be a magnification and exaggeration of reality, so we can’t hold Homer Simpson to the same levels as Ray Romano or Bill Cosby.
What’s astounding about all of my examples (except for Homer Simpson) is that the dud fathers are characters that the male lead wrote themselves for themselves. They chose to be the lovable dumbass, a fool to be tolerated and punished like a child – and someone that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into guiding their children. What’s more astounding is that these fathers have jobs that would lead us to believe that they are otherwise good and responsible people – Cosby plays a doctor, Allen plays a television host, Romano plays a writer, and Romano’s brother on the show is a police officer. There are no Al Bundys here, who you’d expect to be dodging the reality of their family.
Television hasn’t been all cruel to fathers, but with a catch. All of the good fathers that I remember from my youth seemed to be single fathers; Mr. Drummand from Diff’rent Strokes and Henry Warnimont from Punky Brewster, whose adoptions served as the show’s premise, and our almost-too-exemplary-father, Danny Tanner from Full House, whose wife had died in a car accident, leaving him to raise three girls. So it seems that the only way for a father to be a good father is to literally kill his wife on the show, or otherwise take the woman out of the equation. Why can’t a father be effective when a mother is present?
Honorable mention for an effective husband with a still-living wife goes to Michael Gross’ depiction of Steven Keaton on Family Ties. Interestingly enough, Ed O’Neill, of Married with Children was also considered for the role.
So what was it about the 80′s and 90′s that started to breed doormat fathers who’d rather act like a kid than step up and teach their kids morals? We didn’t need Rambo, but maybe a dad that would throw a football around with his kid from time to time would be nice (okay Tim Allen, you got us there). Was it the latter waves of the feminist movement that emasculated fathers? I hate to say it – but judging from the writers of these television shows – we did it to ourselves, guys. Only one person can make you a bad father – and that’s you. Somewhere along the line, we found it funny to make television’s fathers into fools, and now we’re all out of Danny Tanners.
I know I’m missing some prominent television fathers from my youth. Let me know about your favorite or most notoriously “unfatherly” TV dads in the comments.