TV’s father figures have gone from dad to worse, writes Darren Devlyn
TRY to conjure an image of a classic TV dad. If you’ve been around for much of the 52-year history of TV, you might be thinking of Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons, Father Knows Best’s Robert Young, Leave it to Beaver’s Hugh Beaumont or some otherwise comforting figure.
If you’re thinking TV from the ’70s or early ’80s, maybe you’re contemplating The Brady Bunch, Diff’rent Strokes or The Cosby Show — programs that had dads who kept their kids in line with love and discipline. Sure, they could be a little bumbling, but not like the cavalcade of idiot dads who have followed in their TV footsteps.
Married With Children’s Al Bundy could have been accused of child neglect, Homer Simpson’s hardly a role model, Ray Romano was a caring but clumsy dad on Everybody Loves Raymond and Hal, the father played by Bryan Cranston on Malcolm in the Middle, was simply nuts.
Then there’s Two and a Half Men, which features a divorced dad and his son sharing digs with a hopelessly irresponsible bachelor (Charlie Sheen).
Cranston, who plays a drugdealing dad in the critically acclaimed new drama Breaking Bad— on Monday he won an outstanding drama actor Emmy Award for the role— says it’s become common for writers to create father characters who are ‘‘put-upon’’.
‘‘You can’t do the reverse now (portray mums and women as inept). It wouldn’t be acceptable,’’ Cranston says. ‘‘You can’t say ‘Oh, what a dingbat’ like Archie did on All in the Family. It just wouldn’t work any more.’’
Tim Brooks, co-author of The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows, says portraying dads as dumb is a ‘‘classic formula’’.
He feels father figures aren’t being portrayed as quite the overt dills that they used to be, but it’s inevitably mum who wears the pants in the TV family.
TV began making fun of dads, Brooks says, with the emerging power of advertising — advertisers waking up to the fact that their target audience was women and kids, and it was women who controlled the household budget.
‘‘In the ’60s and ’70s, when they figured out who was watching television and advertisers focused on women, it became a little less cool to knock Mum,’’ Brooks says.
Sitcom dads are the butt of jokes, but TV dads on dramas have also had it rough.
Many of today’s writers are pushed to portray families as dysfunctional. Even when dads are well meaning, they often struggle in relationships with their kids.
The challenge is in creating TV families that are solid without making them saccharine sweet and boring. A rare exception of a woman facing such struggles is the potdealing mum in Weeds.
Don’t get Packed to the Rafters creator Bevan Lee going on television fathers. It’s a subject that gets his blood boiling.
‘‘One of the things that drives me nuts is that every father figure is a complete buffoon and it’s really wrong,’’ he fumes.
‘‘The dad is either a dupe or a fool or a distant figure.’’
Lee turned to memories of his own father, Bert, when it came to shaping the character of Dave Rafter (Erik Thomson). He describes Dave as ‘‘a homage to my dad’’.
‘‘He didn’t quite know what to make of me because I was this creative guy in this very blokey family, but he was a loving father,’’ Lee says. ‘‘He had this quiet dignity and great masculine strength at the head of the family.
‘‘I wanted Dave Rafter to have that same quiet dignity. He will do silly things and he will stuff up but he will also be wonderful and be there for his wife. He doesn’t have to be this dominant paternal figure but he’s true to himself.’’
CRANSTON defends how writer Vince Gilligan has rendered his character in Breaking Bad. The show offers a compelling observation of how far a contemporary father, facing ill-health and financial ruin, is prepared to go to create security for his family.
Cranston is renowned for a blankfaced demeanour, an actor who often appears as if he’s building a rocket ship in his head.
This quiet, concealed exasperation is used to maximum effect in Breaking Bad, where his character, Walter White, tumbles into the worst mid-life crisis imaginable.
White, 50, has lived a life against the odds. Once a successful research chemist, he’s now stuck teaching apathetic high-school students in New Mexico and working a weekend job at a car wash.
His wife is pregnant, they have a son with cerebral palsy, then Walter discovers he’s terminally ill.
He keeps the bad news to himself, but comes up with a plan to ensure his family’s financial stability.
Walter corners a drug-dealing student with an offer the student can’t refuse. Walter will keep his knowledge of the drug-dealing quiet if the student agrees to become his business partner.
Walter will use his chemistry skills to cook up the drugs and the student will distribute them. It’s a plan that has catastrophic consequences.
‘‘The writing’s the most important thing . . . it stimulates the imagination,’’ Cranston says of the TV production process.
‘‘The opening scenes of the show fill you with so many questions. I’m reading the opening page (script) and here’s this character (Walter) wearing no trousers.
‘‘He’s in his underwear, driving (a camper van in the desert) recklessly and wearing a gas mask. You can’t help but think, ‘what the hell is going on here?’ Then you find out how Walter got to that point. It’s incredible.’’
In the name of the father: (above) Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad represents the image decline of the TV dad, from the caring and respected fathers in shows up to the early 1980s to the sad and hapless caricatures in more recent offerings.