With Father’s Day coming Sunday, it seems an appropriate time to assess the state of fathers on television — a picture that’s not always rosy.
Dads, you see, are the last subculture in America whom it is permissible to bash and malign with impunity. They have no lobby whose sole task it is to protect their honor. You can depict dads as stumbling, bumbling doofs all you want and receive not a single shred of flak for it.
By contrast, motherhood is sacrosanct. Moms don’t make mistakes on TV. When they do, it’s probably because of something their husband did. Too often, family TV comedy is all about what dad did to screw up the day/night/event/situation. Fathers are mere dummies at the mercy of everyone, their children included.
You see this phenomenon played out even on the most clever of comedies, like “The Simpsons” (has Homer Simpson done a single thing right in his pathetic life?) and “Everybody Loves Raymond” (the prototype “dad is a loser” sitcom). Mothers are strong. Fathers are weak. Moms keep the family together. Dads unwittingly drive it apart. Moms raise not only the kids but the father as well. Dads are, well, tolerated.
With but a few exceptions, it has always been this way in primetime. Jim Anderson (Robert Young) was all-wise on “Father Knows Best,” and Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) was the picture of fatherly strength on “The Cosby Show.” But they’re not the norm. What’s worse is that the majority of father characters appear to be devoid of any sort of past. They come to their blithering idiocy seemingly via osmosis.
This is a battle Bruce Helford has fought ever since his days as an executive producer on “Roseanne.” He pushed to make sure that John Goodman’s character, Dan Conner, was a fully rounded parent with a genuine pedigree and not a generic ignoramus. Now he’s doing the same for George Lopez’s namesake character as creator-producer-writer on ABC’s “The George Lopez Show.”
Drawing from his past
It obviously didn’t hurt that Lopez played up his tumultuous real-life family past in his stand-up act. It’s now being incorporated into a show that, as it heads into its fourth season, is the first and only successful Latino-themed series in broadcast TV history.
“George is defined by an almost totally horrible childhood with a tough mom and a father who abandoned him,” Helford says. “He’s driven to be a better dad than he had. I think that’s something a lot of men can relate to. With George, you really get a sense of his history as a son, and it brings you to where he is as a father.”
What “George Lopez” works hard to convey is the fact that good dads make plenty of mistakes, but it shouldn’t be solely their mistakes that define them.
“George and his wife run the family and raise the kids together as a team,” Helford notes, “and he’s a strong man in the household.
“And I mean, most fathers that you see on TV seemingly had no childhood or background whatsoever. The Jim Andersons and Ward Cleavers and Ozzie Nelsons were wise and sensitive, but they had no past. They were sort of like madonnas that way,” he says. “I think, by contrast, that audiences respond to fathers who bring real experience to the table.”
Making fathers stupid “is just an easy comic angle for writers,” Helford believes. “It doesn’t do justice to fathers or to the character.”
In “George Lopez,” the father doesn’t shrink from the tough issues of parenting. His son has dyslexia, his daughter self-esteem problems.
“We deal with stuff that would have made Jim Anderson faint,” Helford concludes.
It may not quite herald a bold new era for tele-dads, but it’s a start.