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The devolution of Dad
© St. Petersburg Times
The question first came to me while I was watching Ozzy Osbourne fumble with his TV remote.
Like many other couch potatoes, I was drawn to the in-your-face dysfunction of MTV's The Osbournes. I marveled at the cursing children, the shrieking adults and -- most of all -- Ozzy's burned-out, barely-connected-to-reality attitude.
As I watched the former Black Sabbath frontman bleat for son Jack to help with his computerized, touch-screen satellite TV hookup, it hit me:
When did TV dads get so stupid?
Sure enough, they've been dumb for a while. Archie Bunker was no Nobel Prize winner, and TV's dimmest bulb, Homer Simpson, has served as Fox's animated poster dad for family dysfunction since 1989.
Still, Ozzy -- with a shaky confusion that could be the fruit of past substance abuse or current psychotropic drug treatment -- has emerged as a real-life symbol. He's a discombobulated guy who cares but is still somehow nearly as childish as his children.
Borne aloft by his show's tsunami of success, Ozzy has earned the admiration of George W. Bush and Dan Quayle alike. (Apparently they never heard about the times he bit the head off a bat and a dove.) And the adoration -- which attracted an MTV-record 8-million viewers to one episode during the show's debut season just past -- has a simple source.
He's the living, breathing embodiment of today's doofus TV dad.
It's an image reflected back to us from dozens of shows, especially comedies: The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, The King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Hughleys, The Bernie Mac Show, Married . . . With Children and more. Much more.
For every model TV dad such as 7th Heaven's the Rev. Eric Camden or Once and Again's Rick Sammler, we see 10 guys like Ken Titus, who was shown taking potshots at one of his children with a BB gun in an episode of Fox's recently canceled Titus.
How did we wind up here? Why are the great majority of modern TV fathers so out of it?
Jim O'Kane, a single father who maintains a Web site tribute to unmarried TV dads, has a theory.
"Dysfunctional is more entertaining . . . and the more incapable the parent, the longer the show's going to last," said O'Kane, who lists most every network show that has featured a single dad at www.tvdads.com. "There is a tendency on these shows to assume the dad is incompetent, that he's incapable of cooking a meal or doing laundry. It's a negative shorthand that doesn't apply in this day and age."
And in case you think this dad is just being sensitive, research backs up his conclusions.
According to a survey conducted two years ago by the National Fatherhood Initiative, father characters were eight times as likely as mothers to be shown negatively on prime time network TV. Rating characters on factors such as engagement, guidance and competence, the group found 35 percent of fathers shown in a positive light.
"In their very formative years, what images are little boys taking away on what it means to be a responsible father?" said Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Maryland-based advocacy group that encourages fathers to stay involved with their children and families, regardless of divorce or romantic breakups. "We can't have it both ways . . . setting a 3-year-old in front of Sesame Street to learn how to read, then (sitting) them in front of negative images and (saying) they have no impact."
Warren is incensed by shows that infantilize dads -- he cites Homer Simpson and Raymond's Ray Barone as fathers who need parenting nearly as much as their kids -- and by programs that seem to act as if dads are irrelevant.
"(Such shows) speak to where our culture is. . . . It's certainly reflected in the ways fathers are portrayed on TV shows," he said.
Warren once wrote an op-ed column criticizing the manufacturers of Brady Bunch merchandise for leaving dad Mike Brady off new items because of a dispute with actor Robert Reed's estate. According to the Washington Post, Reed -- who hated playing Mike Brady -- refused to give Viacom, the parent company of Paramount, which owns the Brady Bunch rights, permission to use his image on Brady merchandise, and his relatives have continued to honor that stance.
"Would they have done the same thing if they hadn't been able to strike a deal with the mother (actor Florence Henderson)?" he said. "There's a perspective that if you X the father out, the merchandise would still be valuable."
Okay, maybe some people are taking this issue a little too seriously.
Certainly, some might argue that the proliferation of dysfunctional dad images has done little to loosen males' hold on the best jobs, highest salaries and most powerful positions in American society.
And at least TV fathers are shown. So many TV parents are single dads -- a reverse of real life -- that some shows don't even bother explaining why the mom isn't around ('90s-era sitcoms Drexell's Class and Davis Rules, for instance, never told viewers why their central characters were single fathers).
Still, O'Kane can't help wondering if society expects a little less of fathers because TV has trained them to.
"It can affect things like beliefs in the courtroom and public policy, where mom (is considered) the only person who can make decisions about the children," he said. "It can have quite an impact on people's lives."
Each decade has given us a different take on TV families and their fathers, though.
In the '50s and '60s, we had infallible dads such as Leave it to Beaver's Ward Cleaver and My Three Sons' Steve Douglas. By the '70s, producers were shattering the placid suburban perfection of past sitcoms with working-class fathers such as Archie Bunker and Sanford and Son's Fred Sanford.
The '80s shook up the traditional family with fathers that seemed persistently and intentionally wrong-headed, including the much-maligned Homer Simpson and Married . . . With Children's Al Bundy (even the decade's best TV dad, Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable, seemed to disguise his parenting skills with clownish good humor).
The '90s were a grab bag that included Mike Farrell's sentimental Dr. James Hansen (NBC's Providence), James Gandolfini's murderous-yet-devoted mobster dad, Tony Soprano (HBO's The Sopranos), and Kurtwood Smith's outwardly callous Red Forman (Fox's That '70s Show).
Indeed, networks seem to have developed their own formulas for TV families -- especially in comedy -- that affects how fathers are shown. CBS offers the "hot" mom paired with a fumbling, not-so-good-looking dad, seen in Yes, Dear, King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond. ABC presents the wisecracking dad (also with the obligatory "hot" mom) who is more in control of his household, seen in My Wife and Kids, According to Jim and The George Lopez Show.
"I've talked to a lot of men, and they all have complaints about their parents -- what they didn't do -- and they all have these dreams about what they're going to do different," said Jim Belushi, star of According to Jim, in a news conference last year. "This show is going to express them trying to do something different. Our show will support and say, 'Look, this is possible,' and . . . push this ideal on."
Fox has virtually patented the dysfunctional family comedy featuring particularly incapable fathers, epitomized by The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Grounded for Life and Malcolm in the Middle. Conversely, the WB offers younger, concerned dads trying to connect with their teenage children in series such as Dawson's Creek and Smallville.
"Young Clark Kent values and trusts and needs the advice and respect and counsel of his parents . . . and that's also important in the Schneider household," said John Schneider, the onetime Dukes of Hazzard star who plays father to pre-Superman Clark Kent in the WB's Smallville, during a news conference last year. "I'm very thankful to be part of something that is actually elevating the role of parent."
O'Kane sees further improvement in the future, citing a wave of family programming planned for networks this fall as a hopeful sign.
"So often, TV runs in cycles . . . and the pendulum looks like its going to be swinging back (to more competent dads)," he said, citing the WB's remake of Family Affair as evidence. "We're seeing the return of one of the best-known dad figures of all time. You're going back to seeing dads trying to reconnect with their kids. . . . That's script No. 1 for any single-dad TV show."
A range of fatherhood images are displayed among the 34 or so new series planned for September (about 16 new shows regularly feature fathers; only about five offer patriarchal characters who aren't seriously flawed).
The extremes include John Ritter's wisecracking, involved father on the ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter; David Morse's bitter, disgraced ex-cop-turned-cab-driver and divorced dad in CBS's Hack; and Dennis Farina's caustic father-in-law (imagine a TV version of Robert DeNiro's Meet the Parents character, Jack Byrnes) on the NBC comedy Hidden Hills.
But a tape of the new Family Affair sent to critics shows a series with a harder edge than the '60s classic, with Gary Cole (Mike Brady in the new Brady Bunch movies) as Uncle Bill and The Rocky Horror Picture Show alum Tim Curry as Mr. French.
In the WB's update, Cole's Uncle Bill gets 6-year-old twins Buffy and Jody, the children of his brother, from an exasperated sister who has raised them since their father and mother died in an accident.
When the sister leaves them, she shows no affection or attachment. Cole's Uncle Bill spends most of the episode trying to get rid of the twins, jumping at a co-worker's suggestion that he send them to a boarding school.
That take may reflect modern-day cynicism, but it leaves little room for sentimentality or loving emotion -- at least until the end of the show, when Uncle Bill discovers he does care about his young charges.
Still, O'Kane noted such series can offer a potent lesson for fathers.
"Get a maid or find a butler. All the dads I've seen on TV seem to do a lot better when they have an English butler," he said, laughing.
"No, the real message is to try and get away from the drudge work to spend more time with your kids. That's the main fantasy of all these shows: The unreality of having lots of time with our kids."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.