Aaron Traister admits he's no Cliff Huxtable, but please don't compare him to the dingbat fathers on TV today. He'll ground you! REDBOOK.
When I think about TV sitcoms, I imagine the classics of my youth, featuring characters like Cliff and Clair Huxtable and Steven and Elyse Keaton, where everyone laughed and learned and grew a little between the Energizer Bunny and "Where's the beef?" commercials. Back in the day, sitcoms tricked me into believing that there were dads out there who were as cool as Cliff and as sensitive as Steven--that fatherhood was going to be about wearing colorful knit sweaters and knowing exactly what to do if my son idolized Nixon. Eventually, I realized that these TV patriarchs were far too perfect, and now, as an adult (and husband and dad), I'd much rather watch people catch crustaceans off the coast of Russia on Deadliest Catch.
But the drumbeat of excitement about the return of fall TV convinced me to give family sitcoms another shot. Shows about marriage and fatherhood are everywhere, and apparently, guys like me are watching them. Was I missing something? I decided to find out if the latest generation of TV dads is any more realistic than their idealized '80s predecessors.
Spoiler alert: The answer is no. Sitcoms have simply swung to the other end of the spectrum, portraying dads as clueless, bumbling doofuses. Forget the perfection of Dr. Huxtable; these guys can barely muster the basic competency of Barney Rubble. At a moment when American dads are more involved in family life than ever, I, for one, am not amused. These are just a few things I want to yell at the TV:
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Being a hands-on dad is not emasculating.
I warmed up by Hulu-ing a few existing hit shows that I'd never seen before. In an episode of Up All Night from last spring, stay-at-home dad Chris (Will Arnett) and his buddy Reed (Will Forte) attempt to recapture their manhood by building a motorcycle, then get frustrated and go on a shopping spree instead. Failing to man up is a recurring theme on many of the dad-centric sitcoms I checked out. Granted, dads change more diapers and prepare more bottles nowadays, but that doesn't make us wusses. Masculinity has evolved, not declined. Meanwhile, TV has backtracked: Tony Danza wore an apron and still managed to be plenty manly on Who's the Boss? There are always going to be instances when I feel "man-downed": when a scary-looking truck driver cuts in front of me in the rest-stop bathroom line; when I can't fix a sink; when I lose a fight with my wife, Karel. But being a good and present dad is not one of those times. I've never felt like less of man because I spend my days keeping my kids active, fed, safe, and learning, even if that means singing "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" during story time at the library. Absurd, maybe, but never less of a man.
Kids are not props.
I watched a lot of shows for this column, from Modern Family and Parenthood to advance screeners of new series like Guys With Kids and The New Normal on NBC and Fox's Ben and Kate. I quickly developed a drinking game to pass the time. The first rule was that every time a dad appeared carrying a baby in a baby carrier, an apparently ridiculous sight, you had to do a shot. Guys With Kids opens on three dudes with their backs to the cameras watching a basketball game at a bar. They turn around to trade high fives, and it is revealed that all three of them have babies strapped to their chests. I can't emphasize enough that involved, responsible dads don't bring their kids to bars; only dads who are degenerate gamblers and alcoholics do that. Think I'm being humorless? I also watched shows where dads used their babies to pick up women, help stalk ex-girlfriends, and act as good-luck charms at hockey games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar inexplicably shows up at the end of the Guys With Kids pilot to "dunk" one of the babies for a picture so the dad can post it on Facebook. I didn't even know how to incorporate that scene into my drinking game.
Fathers are not 200-pound babies.
In case you haven't realized this yet, I was hard-pressed to find father figures who acted like grown-ups in these sitcoms. Phil Dunphy on Modern Family takes the cake. Don't get me wrong: Phil's hapless attempts to be cool are funny, but when every dad on the small screen begins to look like a variation of Phil, it's depressing. I've pulled my fair share of Phil moves--I once took my then-toddler son to an abandoned factory to photograph graffiti, only to realize (too late) that our excursion might be considered "breaking and entering" by an outside observer--but Karel has no patience for them, and that's a good thing. If I acted like these guys every day, no sane woman would've married, let alone procreated, with me.
In my opinion, all dads on TV should be more like Louis C.K. on Louie. This show is dark and uncomfortable, and Louie never falls into the sitcom traps mentioned above. He understands that in a world where everything is a joke, and often a cruel one, taking care of his kids is the only serious thing a guy can do. Louie may work his daughters into the comedy routines that open each episode, but when we see him brushing his younger daughter's teeth, or cooking them chicken cutlets for dinner, or taking them on a road trip to see an elderly aunt, it's clear that he never mistakes them or his fatherly responsibilities for the joke. Ninety-nine percent of the dads on TV today drive me to drinking games. Thank god this one doesn't, because I have to be up early, ready to go, for my kids.
Granted, dads change more diapers these days, but that doesn't make us wusses.
REDBOOK columnist Aaron Traister lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two kids. Read his blog at redbookmag.com/whysguy.
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