What’s hap­pened

TV’s fa­ther fig­ures have gone from dad to worse, writes Dar­ren Devlyn

Herald Sun - Switched On - - News -

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.

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