American history can be learned from reading a book, but we can also see how the nation has changed over the decades by observing how we’ve shifted in portraying our TV dads. With that in mind, we’ve put together a handy timeline of some of the most indelible TV fathers, explaining why they mattered in their particular epochs. You can argue with the dads we left off — e.g., Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray or That ‘70s Show’s Red — but this isn’t intended to be a ranking of the best fictional fathers, just a rundown of how some of them perfectly reflected what was going on in the country at the time.
The Father Knows Best Era
Time Period: Mid-1950s
Iconic Father: Jim Anderson (played by Robert Young)
Why He Matters: Befitting a time period in which the nuclear family was of paramount importance, Father Knows Best painted a rosy portrait of American life: There’s a handsome dad, a pretty mom, three adorably pliable kids and lots of teachable moments. Like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best preached a wholesome, slightly square domestic normalcy that placed the dad at the top. His job is to go to work and make a living, enduring his little tots when he comes home at night. Everything’s perfect, and nobody has any major problems. Depending on your perspective, that either sounds wonderfully tranquil or terrifyingly stifling.
The My Three Sons Era
Time Period: The 1960s
Iconic Father: Steve Douglas (played by Fred MacMurray)
Why He Matters: The 1950s white-picket niceness was starting to melt away with the cultural revolution brought on by the Civil Rights era and rock ‘n’ roll. Television embraced these societal changes—eventually, and at first only timidly. My Three Sons starred MacMurray (best known for playing unsavory men in movies like Double Indemnity) as the friendly, noble single dad to three growing boys. What was mildly edgy about the show was that his character was a widower, allowing Americans to see a nontraditional family dynamic on TV. Still super-docile by today’s standards, My Three Sons at least started to reveal the cracks in the idealized American portrait of father-mother-and-cute-kids. And unlike the fathers that came before, MacMurray actually had to do some real parenting, since he couldn’t just leave it to the wife.
The Brady Bunch Era
Time Period: Early 1970s
Iconic Father: Mike Brady (played by Robert Reed)
Why He Matters: Now thought of as a lightweight, slightly kitschy sitcom, The Brady Bunch was somewhat radical for its day, with its family constructed from two broken homes: Mike’s first wife had died, and Carol (Florence Henderson) had split from her first husband. Divorce and death weren’t the most obvious setups for a TV comedy, but The Brady Bunch turned them into a backdrop for the family’s groovy, laugh-track-assisted adventures, offering a bit of emotional resonance to the show’s silliness. As a father, Mike was hardly a groundbreaking template — he’s a good, decent, upstanding dude — but Reed gave him a sweetness that, matched with the character’s tragic backstory, made him seem softer than the blandly upstanding dads of earlier eras.
The All in the Family Era
Time Period: 1970s
Iconic Father: Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor)
Why He Matters: In the ‘70s, the American counterculture fueled risk-taking, anti-authoritarian films like Easy Riders and Chinatown, but more people experienced the political and social upheaval of the time watching a sitcom. For most of its run during the 1970s, All in the Family was in the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings — it was number one for five seasons — even though it sounded off on race relations, the Vietnam War and the generational divide between conservative dad Archie and his hippie son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner). This was a father who definitely didn’t know best — more accurately, he represented an outdated worldview that was quickly being shoved aside by a new (and, for him, frightening) order.
The Cosby Show Era
Time Period: Mid-1980s
Iconic Father: Cliff Huxtable (played by Bill Cosby)
Why He Matters: Until recently, when Cosby’s crimes became common knowledge, it was easy to think of The Cosby Show as the slightly dopey, incredibly popular sitcom that singlehandedly made NBC the dominant network of the 1980s. The comedian’s dark history of drugging and assaulting women has now scarred our collective memory of the show, but for its time, it was monumental for the simple fact that it showed an affluent African-American family on television. Breaking down racial barriers through standard sitcom dilemmas — the kids get into trouble, the parents fuss and fume — The Cosby Show also built on the stand-up persona that Cosby had perfected, that of the clueless dad outnumbered by perplexing children and a much-smarter wife. Cliff was the show’s lovable centerpiece, but unlike back in the Father Knows Best era, he was a dad who knew he didn’t run his household.
The Roseanne Era
Time Period: Late 1980s
Iconic Father: Dan Conner (played by John Goodman)
Why He Matters: Roseanne Barr was hardly the first comedienne to have her own sitcom, but Roseanne was the first since I Love Lucy to really relegate the dad character to a supporting player. If the Huxtables were upwardly-mobile representations of the booming 1980s, then Roseanne and Dan Conner were the blue-collar folks being left behind. Dan was a new kind of father: vulnerable and sweet, henpecked by his bossy wife but still hopelessly devoted to her. Goodman ennobled the sort of beer-drinking loser that other sitcoms would have made a laughing stock. In his highly capable hands, however, Dan was a man constantly ashamed of his inability to give his family a better life, but always trying to compensate by being as good a guy as possible.
The Simpsons Era
Time Period: 1990s
Iconic Father: Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta)
Why He Matters: Serving as a direct commentary on the quiet dignity of The Cosby Show’s Huxtable clan, The Simpsons was an impertinent, acerbic sitcom that obliterated the old-fashioned notion of the nuclear family. In the show’s early years, Bart was the main attraction, the writers reveling in his rebellious tendencies. But soon they realized that his dad was the real comedic goldmine. In Homer, The Simpsons found what is, to this day, the perfect modern-day TV father: drunken, well-intentioned, utterly worthless, prone to anger, always at a loss for the right thing to do or say. You can see traces of Homer in every idiot TV dad since, including Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor, Malcolm in the Middle’s Hal, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin and Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy.
The Sopranos Era
Time Period: 2000s
Iconic Father: Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)
Why He Matters: There are many complicated, conflicted male characters who have been the leads of acclaimed cable dramas in the post-9/11 era. But with all due respect to Breaking Bad and Mad Men, The Sopranos made such a TV landscape possible, ushering in the golden age of small-screen drama. No Homer-esque buffoon, but still unable to fully understand his family, Tony Soprano is the prototypical breadwinner and head of the household, except he’s so hobbled by inner turmoil and “business” concerns that he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Gandolfini’s brooding, oddly sympathetic portrayal of a monster set the stage for every Walter White and Don Draper to come, examining the impossible cultural perception of what constitutes masculinity that has crippled men (and fathers in particular) for generations.
The Bob’s Burgers Era
Time Period: 2010s
Iconic Father: Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin)
Why He Matters: Plenty of films have grappled with the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis, but Bob’s Burgers is the one sitcom to make it part of the show’s comedic DNA. Although the housing bubble is never mentioned, this FOX series often has money — or the lack thereof — on its mind. Set somewhere on the East Coast — probably New Jersey — Bob’s Burgers follows the exploits of a family who all work at the titular hamburger restaurant. A literal mom-and-pop shop, Bob’s Burgers is always at risk of financial ruin, and a lot of the humor (and plenty of the anxiety) comes from Bob’s struggles to be a good father, decent husband and successful small-business owner all at the same time. Working-class woes are often at the forefront of the show, and in Bob we see the overextended modern dad in all his rumpled glory, just trying to keep his head above water in all aspects of his life.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.