Friday, June 13, 2008

The "Good TV Dads" Are Really Buffoons

This post was submitted by Kestor Smith to run on StrangeCulture as part of the Dads in Media Blog-a-thon. Kestor is the pastor of Immanuel Austin Community. He is alos and blogger who writes the blog The Dope Is That There's Still Hope.

There’s a lot to like about television and a lot not to like. Some of the “to like” includes the informative and persuasive as well as the humorous and entertaining. Some of the “not to like” includes reality television, oversexed and vapid teens, and the rise of “infotainment.” But my personal beef over the past decade has been a theme in prime time sitcoms that I call “the father as emasculated man-child.”

There was a time when father knew best. A time when the Beav knew exactly who to turn to in a crisis. A time when a father could be funny without also being an ass. These dads could be more sensitive and substantive or gruff with a soft underbelly. Dads like Cliff Huxtable and Charles Ingalls and Dan Conner and Jack Arnold. Dads with faults, but dads you could love and admire.

Of course, there have always been dads who were never meant to reflect “real life.” Dads like Homer Simpson and Frank Costanza make us laugh because they aren’t like our dads (and probably make us laugh a little less if they are). Those dads don’t bother me. No one watches The Family Guy and thinks it is someone’s take on what family should be.

The dads I’m talking about are the ones we’re supposed to accept as what dads probably are. The fourth child in a three-child family. The guy who is destined to make a mistake. The dad whose catchphrase might as well be, “I’m sorry.”

"Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever." This is Paul Rudd’s take on marriage in the recent film Knocked Up. I not only disagree with Rudd’s take on marriage, I also disagree with his take on Everybody Loves Raymond. While marriage can be challenging and exciting and funny and complicated, Everybody Loves Raymond is none of those things. It’s mostly just unfunny and tense. And it feels like it lasts forever.

Let me sum up the plot of every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond (spoiler alert!). Ray Barone is everydad, he has a nice average house and a beautiful wife and 3 kids. He is what we are meant to think of when we think of “dad.” At some point Ray will say or do something stupid (perhaps multiple times) and spend the rest of the episode paying the price. His beautiful wife will nag him and scold him and generally condescend to him, but will eventually forgive him because he is, after all, a buffoon.

But Ray isn’t alone. If anything, Tim Taylor started it in the early nineties. Or maybe Patrick Dempsey as Frank Lambert on Step By Step. Maybe it happened when Danny Tanner’s daughter drove a car through the kitchen wall and all he did was pat her head and smile. It was like someone was out to expose a popular misconception…father does NOT know best and his best moments are when he lets his family walk all over him.

Actually, I know how the problem started. It started by not giving mothers their due. We made them fawning, helpless second fiddles to dads who always had the answers. And we are paying the price with dads who can’t tie their own shoelaces without someone there to help.

My favorite family shows have always featured couples that struggled together with life and love and marriage and family. Shows like The Wonder Years and The Cosby Show (before Denise moved back home with “Rudy Two”) and Rosanne (before the lottery) showed us parents who, while flawed, worked together as equals in order to do the hard work of raising kids. Dad might take some ribbing from mom, but in a way that always heightened their affection instead of diminishing it.

I’m not trying to get us back to some 50’s ideal that was, frankly, a tad too black and white. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t see dad will all his quirks and marriage with all its problems. I am asking that we stop churning out show after show about dads who are “loveable” by being inept and moms who are “capable” by being nagging shrews. Behind all of Rosanne’s aggression there was always love, but Debra Barone’s calmer correction plays as mean and petty. Every time she says, “Ra-ay” I want to shove a pair of scissors into my ears.

Here’s my request. Somebody make a sitcom that celebrates dads and moms as complex characters and not as laughable caricatures. Somebody write us a dad that everybody can love.


Heather said...

Nicely done. Good comments and thoughts. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for calling Knocked Up on that silly line about Everybody Loves Raymond. Exactly my thoughts when I heard it.

And you're absolutely right about dads in sitcoms these days. But there are good dads on TV - they're just not in sitcoms. Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights for example. Of course, he's given much more to do than simply be a dad and his relationship with Tami is more similar to the loving but not perfect marriages you cite in earlier sitcoms. Have sitcoms just given up trying for this sort of depth, ceding the complex stuff to dramas? Is that necessarily a bad thing? I'm not sure I'd mind the demise of the sitcom altogether in favor of hour-long comedy/dramas.

(Disclosure: I hate most sitcoms; the only recent ones I like are How I Met Your Mother, which has no parents, and Arrested Development, which has no parents who could be termed "good.")

Trevor said...

@jandy - I could not agree with you more about Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Best dad on television. One of the best shows on television.