As a kid, I was very proud of my Berenstain Bears collection — pretty much the full book series, if I’m not mistaken. But my dad, even though he loved telling and reading stories, always wanted me to pick something else from the shelf. In retrospect, I’m sure the constant moralizing was a great annoyance to him, but often since childhood I’ve had cause to remember his complaint at the time: Papa Bear is just a total idiot.
This wasn’t a new problem. Back in the 1970s, comedy legend Bob Newhart made an effort to resist the bumbling-dad cliché in his beloved sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. The series is centered on Newhart, a Chicago psychologist, and his wife, Emily; it was revolutionary for depicting them sharing a bed and, somewhat more pointedly, being childless. “I love kids. I have four of my own but I didn’t want to be the dumb father that seemed to be in every sitcom,” Newhart explained a few years ago. “I said that wasn’t the kind of show I wanted to do.” A canny move, but the TV industry as a whole did not follow suit. By the 1990s, the networks and cable were crammed with doofus dads. Married With Children, Home Improvement, The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, South Park, The King of Queens, Family Guy: a dimwitted patriarch was practically required, and the archetype seemed to work. It was only with the rise of prestige TV, and its soon equally annoying male anti-hero formula, that we began to notice how tired we were of the stupid father, who had even made the leap from entertainment to ads.
Now, long past the days of both Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor’s incessant grunting and the brooding, toxic masculinity of Don Draper or Walter White, we may be entering a new era: one in which it’s not unusual to see a detergent commercial where a dad is doing laundry, or a scripted comedy in which a father is afforded some degree of intellectual dignity.
This isn’t to say these dads never do silly, disastrous things — the demands of farce still apply — but such acts tend to be grounded in an understanding of men as something more complicated than a sports-loving receptacle for beer and matrimonial abuse. Take Bob’s Burgers, one of the finest, funniest shows of the decade: Unusually for an animated sitcom about a family (with the other notable exception being King of the Hill), restaurateur and paterfamilias Bob Belcher (voiced by the incomparable H. Jon Benjamin) is more or less the straight man of the premise. His three kids are different shades of manic weirdo, while his chipper wife Linda tends to get just as carried away as they do. Bob does his best to keep them on the rails while maintaining his humble burger joint. When he does screw up, it’s often because of all the stress he’s under.
The dads of Big Mouth, Netflix’s gross-out cartoon about the perils of puberty, also resist the doltish energy we might expect from them. Elliot, father to Nick, instead mortifies his son with an excess of sensitivity, affection and paternal wokeness. “Nicky, a man can touch another penis, or even kiss one, very lightly, and it still doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a homosexual,” he explains at one point. Andrew’s dad, Marty, is styled as a Borscht Belt loudmouth who would rather not hear about his son’s problems and remains addicted to scallops even though they give him diarrhea; that said, he’s certainly no moron, and actually gives Nick the kind of good advice he seems unable to share with his own boy. It’s a complex enough portrayal that fans are divided on whether we’re supposed to like or loathe him.
PEN15, Hulu’s peer show about teen girls, gets even more realistic: Maya’s dad Fred (incidentally played by Home Improvement’s Richard Karn) is largely absent, touring with his band, but nonetheless a sweet, supportive guy, “always faxing doodle-filled updates from the road to his wife and kids back home.” Anna’s dad, Curtis, is a more stable presence at home but apparently too distracted by the implosion of his marriage to excel as a parent — a deficit he tries to make up for with token gestures, all the while clearly knowing they won’t be enough. Compared to the TV dads of the previous generation, these guys are remarkably complex, with actual inner lives.
Whence this sudden, blossoming nuance? It reflects, I believe, any number of trends and cultural conversations of the moment. At the same time that we’re discussing the importance of representation in TV and movies — particularly for people who rarely see anyone like themselves on screen — we’re thinking more intently about how to break the cycle of paint-by-numbers parental figures to deliver a range of authentic experience.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade captured the plight of a socially anxious girl addicted to social media, but it extended that empathy to her single(!) father (Josh Hamilton), who struggles over awkward dinners to understand her world. Her frustration at his deeply felt concern for her well-being is leaps and bounds more relatable than indifference toward an oafish dad too dull to ask what she’s doing on her phone.
Even a straight-up comic romp, like the curiously underrated Blockers, allows for greater diversity of dad-types, from John Cena’s overprotective, cargo-shorted, meathead-as-megasquare to Ike Barinholtz’s divorced, hard-partying philanderer — who for all his failings is still emotionally mature enough to intuit that his daughter his queer and wants to save her from committing to a hetero encounter for the sake of appearances. Their actions are often disastrous, although always carried out in the interest of “being a good dad.”
That, I’d wager, is not only closer to how many of us see our fathers, it’s probably closer to how fathers see themselves: well-intentioned but learning as they go, guardians of a wisdom that you don’t always notice under their goofy exteriors. And as the business of comedy widens to include writers, actors and producers of varied backgrounds and family lives, we’ll find out just how many kinds of dads there are as well. It could be that we’ve finally reached escape velocity from Dumb Dad Planet. Yes, I’ll always love that Homer Simpson forgot you have to file your taxes every year, but he’s had his turn as spokesman of American paternity — let’s not be afraid of some additional brainpower.