Where Are Television’s Good Dads?

King Francis acknowledges, and cares for, the son produced by a one-night-stand with his wife's friend (www.spoilersguide.com).

King Francis acknowledges, and cares for, the son produced by a one-night-stand with his wife’s friend                   (www.spoilersguide.com).

 

Where are the men? In the Father Knows Best era, we could assume they were in (nearly) every home with a wife and child. As David Frum referenced in his recent, provocative Atlantic article, that’s no longer the case:

As the wages of non-college-educated men have tumbled, marriage has looked like an increasingly pointless and even dangerous choice for poorer women. As marriage fades, unwed motherhood has evolved from an acceptable outcome to something close to an inevitability. The order of choices in the face of an unexpected pregnancy has thus shifted again: single parenthood, abortion, shotgun wedding, and adoption.

Those shifts are visible on TV as well. Consider Parenthood’s Amber, a pregnant twenty-something high school graduate. She knows the baby’s father is Ryan, a military veteran and her ex-fiancé. But after driving from San Francisco to Wyoming to tell him about the pregnancy, Amber firmly pushes Ryan away, telling him he couldn’t take care of himself, let alone a baby.

Even when life’s script changes like this, women typically know where they stand vis-a-vis their children, even if that next stage involves significant improvisation. Men don’t share that sense of clarity. The more women’s roles change, the more men’s responsibilities blur.

If women decide to parent solo, men may still hope to be involved. It’s just not always clear how they should do that.

On TV, it is no longer just the occasional Murphy Brown or Miranda Hobbes—educated, wealthy, established women—having babies independently. Both on TV and in real life, there are growing numbers of families where fatherhood is being redesigned—or eliminated—by individual mothers.

Playboy Daniel Grayson recently learned he would be a father on Revenge. However, Margaux, the girlfriend who ditched Daniel after his infidelity, shared that news before reaffirming her aversion to reconciliation, convinced that Daniel would be a terrible father. Daniel steps up by snagging Margaux a coveted appointment with Manhattan’s top OB/GYN. Daniel had also begun reflecting on his past poor behavior, so it’s a shame that the writers just killed him.

On Nashville, starlet Juliette Barnes learns she is pregnant shortly after boyfriend Avery Barkley dumps her for cheating. She decides to keep the baby and eventually texts Avery to share the news, before declaring that Avery can either be all-in or all-out. Disliking those extremes, Avery attempts to be a father-to-be without dating Juliette. This awkward dance includes shopping alone for Juliette’s chosen crib. Avery decides independently that this situation is unsustainable, and at his urging, the two quietly wed in the show’s mid-season finale.

Meanwhile Gunnar, also of Nashville (where unplanned pregnancies are apparently common), has been adapting to his nine-year-old son Micah. Gunnar learned about Micah when he bumped into his waitress-ex, who soon leaves town to follow another boyfriend. Gunnar promptly steps into the role of full-time father and is devastated when Micah’s grandparents appear with a court order declaring them guardians. Since a paternity test proves Gunnar’s ex lied about paternity, Tennessee’s courts are likely to disregard Gunnar’s strong paternal inclination.

It’s all rather complicated in TV-land these days. In earlier eras, what a child and his mother expected were fairly clear and consistent. For example, a father’s name and protection, as Reign’s King Francis offers the son produced by his one-night-stand. Or financial support, as suburban housewife Betty Draper wants from her two husbands on Mad Men.

In our era, what a woman wants from her child’s father varies widely. Call it the Era of Paternal Improvisation. As all of these shows demonstrate, such improvisation is well suited to cliffhangers and dramatic tension. The trouble for kids remains: family life still tends to work better with a predictable script.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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