Cover Story

Fatherhood canceled in primetime TV

THE DECLINE OF FAMILY ON TV: If Dad as depicted on television is nothing more than Archie Bunker or Homer Simpson, it's small wonder that Murphy Brown figured she'd be better off without a husband

Issue: "Marriage and the family," May 20, 2000

Once upon a time, father might have known best-but if so, it was a long time ago. Over the years, television dads have taken a drubbing, being demoted from patriarch and pillar to, in the words of Home Improvement's Jill Taylor, "pathetic." And judging by Judging Amy, fathers are no longer even relevant. The original television dad was Ozzie Nelson, who created, directed, and wrote The Ozzie and Harriet Show for ABC beginning in 1952 (it was a televised adaptation of his popular radio show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet). He also, of course, staffed the show-casting his wife and children as, well, his wife and children. Under his firm direction, the show became television's longest running sitcom (a record it still holds), ending production in 1966. What's important about the show wasn't Ozzie's empire-building; it was his idea of what a father should be. He was at home, always. It became a running gag, though unspoken, that his career (whatever it was) never actually required him to be at work. The closest he got was puttering around in the yard. But that meant he was at home for sons Rick and David, who invariably turned to him for advice. Make Room for Daddy came next; it premiered in 1953 with nightclub singer Danny Thomas playing nightclub singer Danny Williams. It ran for 11 years, switching from ABC to CBS at the start of the 1957 season, and switching titles to The Danny Thomas Show. Again, what was important was that Daddy had an inordinate amount of time for the children-and a well of wisdom. But it was Father Knows Best that defined the genre; from 1953 though 1962, Robert Young was the wise and caring parent of Princess, Bud, and Kitten, guiding them through what then passed for adolescent angst. He had a job-a vague and undemanding one, though, as an insurance agent. And truly, father did know best. The basic plot formula was that one of the kids (or occasionally mother, played by Jane Wyatt) would encounter an obstacle, and would overcome it with the advice and encouragement of father. These shows are comedic shorthand now-good for a dutiful chuckle when alluded to by the first lady (yes, Harriet did seem to make an awful lot of cookies) or parodied on the big screen (last year's feature film Pleasantville was essentially nothing more than Hollywood dishonoring its parents). But they shared a common and commendable view of fatherhood: that it's the pillar of the family. From pillar to "pathetic"
By the end of the 1960s, that began to change. On Jan. 12, 1971, All in the Family debuted, with its lefty sermonizing and its bigoted, pan-offensive lead character, Archie Bunker. CBS ensured critical success by opening the show with an announcement on that first night: "The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns by making them a source of laughter. We hope to show-in a mature fashion-just how absurd they are." Archie Bunker was never more than a straw-man arch-conservative, of course, and the main source of laughs in this wretched show was the Insult Proper (a proud tradition carried on today by Drew Carey). But more importantly, he was never a father-at least, not a father like Robert Young or Ozzie Nelson. He wasn't the family's foundation; he was its oppressor. At best, he was its joke. It wasn't his bigotry that did the most damage to the image of fatherhood. It was his bumbling. Dads had been portrayed as bumblers before-in the radio version of Father Knows Best, for example, Robert Young started out as fairly inept, though he meant well and became better at parenting by the time the show moved to television. But Archie Bunker cemented a new formula: Father no longer helps family members overcome obstacles; father creates or even is the obstacle. Twenty years later, comedian Tim Allen refined the formula with Home Improvement, which began on ABC in 1991. The plots are mirror-images of earlier family comedies; Mr. Allen (as television home improvement show host Tim Taylor) messes something up, and his wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) eventually has to sort everything out. Dad is no longer a repository of wisdom; that role goes to the unmarried next-door neighbor, Wilson. Home Improvement is not a bad show. It's a reliably family-friendly program, and by the end of each half-hour episode, Tim and Jill are reconciled, their boys are begrudgingly obedient, and all is right with the world. But before this blissful domesticity is reached, Jill invariably utters a one-word assessment of contemporary fatherhood (at least as Hollywood sees it)-"pathetic." I've left out any number of decent, pro-fatherhood shows, from The Waltons (1972-1981) and Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) to Eight Is Enough (1977-1981) and Happy Days (1974-1984); but those programs were self-consciously countercultural-counter, at least, to the culture of Hollywood. The shows that producers have prided themselves on-patting themselves on the back for being edgy and relevant-have had a lower opinion of fatherhood: The Simpsons (which premiered in 1990); Roseanne (1988-1997); and to a lesser degree Family Ties (1982-1989)-father Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) was a well-meaning liberal, but still a blunderer at best. From single-motherhood drudgery to Greenwich glam
At the same time, single motherhood has been getting a makeover. For years, of course, divorce had been sidestepped and ignored. The cutting-edge producers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), for example, balked at having Mary Richards move to Minneapolis after a divorce. So instead they made her a single woman who had merely broken up with a boyfriend. And most of the prime-time single parents, from Bill Bixby in The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-1972) to Shirley Jones in The Partridge Family (1970-1974), were widowed, not divorced. This was the case with Linda Lavin's character in Alice, which aired from 1976 through 1985. But Alice was notable in that it was a pretty accurate picture of life as a single mother. It wasn't the Washington dinners and lucrative interior designer gigs that show up a generation later, in Murphy Brown and Designing Women. For Alice, single motherhood meant waitressing at a diner. It meant endlessly worrying about her (largely) unsupervised son, Tommy. It meant spending significant amounts of time with Mel and Flo. Bonnie Franklin's character, Ann Romano, was a divorced single mother in CBS's One Day at a Time (1975-1984). But she, too, found it a hard road. She moved with her two daughters to a run-down apartment in Indianapolis. Single motherhood meant getting a low-level job at an ad agency; it meant sharing the raising of her daughters with Schneider. Again, no glamour here. And again, that began to change. It was probably the minor hit Kate & Allie, on CBS from 1984 to 1989, that signaled the real sea-change. Susan Saint James and Jane Curtain shared a Greenwich Village apartment and the raising of their children. There were dating disasters and personality clashes, but there weren't any money problems and there weren't any notable ex-husband problems. And then came Murphy Brown (1988-1998); in essence, it was merely a retooled Lou Grant with some All in the Family thrown in: liberal sermonizing and straw-men conservatives, but with the added onanism of being a show about showbiz. At the start of the 1991 season, Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) was sleeping with two men (one an ex-husband), and found that she was pregnant; at first, she didn't know by whom (now there's some edgy comedy-illegitimacy and confusion about paternity? Guffaw!). Her choice (always using the best feminist rhetoric) was to have the baby and raise him herself. She assured both men that she could and would do fine raising a child without a husband-that's what then-Vice President Dan Quayle was objecting to when he cited the show's "poverty of values." But its real shame was in making single motherhood glamorous. It was a running joke that Murphy couldn't keep a secretary; the joke was extended to her day-care situation. Eventually, the job was taken by her housepainter, Eldin. So much for Mommy Guilt. From father knows best to judge knows better
Judging Amy, one of the few real hits of the 1999 season, carries this fiction even further. Judge Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman) has left her New York law firm and her husband; she takes the bench of a juvenile court in her hometown and moves in with her mother, played by Tyne Daly. Maxine (Daly's character) is a semi-retired social worker. It's a relentlessly self-righteous show, with Amy and Maxine stepping in time and again to rescue children from their families, and in particular from fathers. It's an endless parade of bad dads-mentally ill dads, murderous dads, religious-nut dads, female genital mutilating dads, intolerant dads-and worst of all, dads who spank. "Each year, 2,000 children die at the hands of their parents," Amy says from the bench in one episode. "Thousands more are permanently disabled. Every day I see children who have been seriously injured by their parents under the guise of discipline." It's up to Amy, and to Maxine, and to single women everywhere to protect children. That's the real verdict of this show. So it's no longer father who knows best, but liberal judges who know better. Who says TV doesn't mirror reality?

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