With Father’s Day coming this weekend, you’re no doubt going to see a bunch of warm and fuzzy tributes on TV to dear old Dad. He’s the one who taught you right from wrong, who always protected you and was there to give you strength in your time of need. It would help, then, if you could manage to put out of your mind the overwhelming portrayal of dads on television — that idiot on the recliner with his hands down his pants.
This always bugged me growing up, as I would see Home Improvement‘s Tim Taylor buffoon his way through another mess of his own making, only to be saved by the sage advice of his next-door neighbor (and non-father) Wilson. Or even seeing supposedly smart guys like Cliff Huxtable, who was a doctor for crying out loud, constantly be outpointed by his wife in every single argument. (And yet she never said boo about his choice of sweaters.) Everyone in the house gave such deference to Clair, as if the ultimate bad spot you could find yourself in was to be on the receiving end of one of her lectures. Aside from how this really isn’t that flattering a portrayal of women, it begs the question as to why nobody cares what the dad thinks. Everybody Loves Raymond, I’m also looking in your direction.
Beyond that, there were and are the countless ridiculous pairings of fat, slobby husbands with thin, hot (and often younger) wives: According to Jim, Still Standing, The King of Queens (no kid, but still), Grounded For Life, Yes, Dear, The Flintstones and a bunch more I know I’m forgetting. Yes, Family Guy and The Simpsons also fit this description, but they earn some points by being so over-the-top that they’re seemingly in on the joke. Same for Al Bundy.
I got some validation on this a couple years back when I was interviewing Bill Engvall for his now-defunct TBS sitcom. I told him how, especially now that I’m a dad myself, I appreciated his character not being a moron, and actually getting to be right once in awhile. His response: “I’m glad you brought that up, because that was one of the things that when TBS came to me and said we want to do a show, I said, ‘That’s great, but I don’t want that typical finger-wagging wife and the husband who you don’t know how he gets out of bed without his wife’s help in the morning.’ Because in my tours across the country, that’s the resounding comment I get, is ‘Finally, a normal family.’ They sit around the dinner table, they talk, the kids smart off and the parents put them in line. I don’t know where [the dumb dad trend] got started, but it just seems like, maybe it was the easy way to go. But you don’t have to have that.”
He said “easy,” but I’ll put a finer point on it and say “lazy.”
The good news is that things do seem to be getting better. Hank Hill was often the voice of reason on King of the Hill, and the dad on The Middle manages to be both a working-class sports nut and a good father. You could make the argument that Phil Dunphy on Modern Family fits squarely into the dumb dad mode, but at least the show sees some merit in his way of doing things from time to time. His failings are more of a personal sort, not because he’s a man and/or a dad. His wife, Claire, is the type-A mom who feels need to be right all the time, but the episodes often end with that attitude leading to her getting knocked on her butt. They’re the inverse of the Huxtables, right down to Claire’s name.
I know not every TV dad can be Sheriff Andy Taylor or Ward Cleaver, and sure, dads should be able to laugh at themselves just like anybody. But this is one gag that’s about as welcome as yet another novelty tie.