The TV parents we want
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you could pick which parents from a TV show you could have, who would you choose and why? —Sam Huddy
Let me preface this by saying that I love my real parents, they did a fine job of raising me, and I had a relatively uneventful and normal middle-class-ish childhood, free from major trauma and abuse and whatnot. Maybe that’s why my knee-jerk first response—hearkening back to the one I would have given as a little kid—was more fantasy-based and less about an unresolved longing for a stable, nurturing environment. As a kid, I really, really wanted to be raised by rich manchild Joel Higgins and comedically stuffy lawyer Franklyn Seales, as Ricky Schroeder was on Silver Spoons. C’mon, Higgins (as the super-rich scion of a toy magnate) had a house full of arcade games and toys, and he was enough of a child himself that he still enjoyed playing with them. He knew nothing about discipline, and essentially needed a precocious kid around to help raise him. I could totally have handled being the adult in that relationship, between games of Tempest and rides around the house on a kid-sized toy train. And Seales’ prissy but good-hearted lawyer would have been a lot of fun to be around. (Weird that I identified him as the mom on the show, rather than love interest and eventual stepmom Erin Gray.)
Who didn’t want Cliff and Clair Huxtable as their surrogate parents? As a kid, my fantasy (and countless others’) was to occupy an extra bedroom in The Cosby Show’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone and have all my errors democratically resolved with their disarming blend of intimate razzing and pragmatic, old-fashioned parenting. A quarter-century ago, Cliff Huxtable was the funniest, kindest, smartest, most reasonable dad in America. And the relationship between him and Clair was an ideal of hard-earned trust and respect, not to mention love and affection. They were the sitcom couple that defied and defined all past and future sitcom couples, and they remain pretty good (though undeniably fictional and somewhat unreal) role models as I move closer toward raising my own family.
To me, Sandy Cohen from The O.C. is pretty much the ideal dad, especially if you ignore some of the soapy twists and turns thrown in his path in the show’s weak middle seasons. He was that perfect balance of wise and embarrassing, offering a steady hand when things got heavy (which happened all the goddamn time on that show) and a light touch for the fun stuff. His sex talk with Seth remains the finest example of that thorny conversation ever depicted on TV. The show kept trying to ruin him by having him quit his noble job as a public defender, but no matter how weird and evil his later occupations got, they never brought Sandy down, and at the end of the show, he was right where he belonged, teaching a bunch of college kids how to do good in the future. Makes my heart swell just thinking about it.
I’ll take Russell Lawrence, UCLA English professor and the father of Frances “Gidget” Lawrence. First off, in a ’60s TV landscape overpopulated by generic small-town (or commuting) “businessmen,” I love that Gidget’s father figure was an unabashed intellectual, living in a very specific California seaside community. Even better: he was tolerant and understanding of teenagers, not full of bluster and knee-jerk outrage. As a widowed dad, he could’ve easily meddled more in his daughter’s life; instead, he let her make mistakes, even when it clearly upset him. But he wasn’t completely hands-off, either. The best episodes of Gidget deal with father and daughter’s efforts to let each other go—so he can find another woman to marry, and she can get ready to leave the house and go to college—and those episodes nearly always end with the two of them deciding they’re not ready yet to say goodbye to each other. Just beautiful.
If for some reason, I went back in time and landed in the living room of one Phillip Drummond, I’d be pretty happy. And not for the reasons you might think; yes, the dad on Diff’rent Strokes was crazy-rich. He had an apartment with an upstairs! Who had ever heard of that in 1978? So he could give me—and my brothers Willis and Arnold Jackson, and my sister Kimberly—everything we wanted. But unlike Joel Higgins, whom Tasha mentioned earlier, Mr. Drummond was loving but firm. He was generous, but taught his kids how to think and act for themselves and earn their own way in the world. It’s almost like having a kinder version of Warren Buffett as a dad; you might be miffed when you learn you’re not getting any of his money, but eventually learn to appreciate the fact that you were able to make it without any help. At least that’s what I’d tell myself late at night, elbows-deep in a regret-filled pint of Chocolate Nutty Moose Tracks ice cream.
I didn’t even know that some part of me wanted a father until I saw John Goodman as Dan Connor on Roseanne. Talk about the whole package. (No fat jokes, please.) On the day-to-day front, he was always sweet-natured, quietly supportive—even when baffled—funny, generous with the contents of the snack drawer, and ready to set aside his own dreams in order to do whatever he had to do to keep the money coming in and put bread on this table! And when he had to rise to an occasion, he just did it, with no self-congratulatory melodramatics: His sister-in-law comes over and reveals that her boyfriend beats her, so he asks, if she’s really okay, gets a yes, waits ’til he’s alone, then simply grabs his coat and without a word, goes over to pound the guy into next Thursday. When the cops show up and his wife starts to explain the situation, which might cause the sister-in-law some embarrassment, he’s all, like, “This is about me and nobody else.” That’s white-trash class, people. I’m convinced that Mark only married Becky because he was using her to get to Dan, so he could sit with him on the roof, throw back a cold one, and listen to great advice, like Dan’s reassurance that after all the aggravation of married life, “finally, like water to a man crossing the desert, comes sweet, sweet death.” (Jesus, though, didn’t it tear your heart out when Dan wouldn’t speak to Becky after she eloped? It must have been like having Puff The Magic Dragon tell you he didn’t want you riding on his tail anymore!) I realize the question was about parents, with the plural “s”, and I realize that having Roseanne as your mom is part of the package. I’d be prepared to accept that.
Could there be more perfect parents—nay, people—than Coach Eric Taylor and his beautiful, intelligent wife, Tami? The patriarch and matriarch of Friday Night Lights are ideal: strict but loving, attentive but not smothering. Hell, even when they argue, they argue awesome. And with incredibly busy schedules, you’d think they’d barely have time for their daughter Julie’s bratty antics, but Coach and Tami find the time to essentially parent all of Dillon. From the obvious, like football players who have rough lives at home, to the less so—who needs a mom and dad more than Buddy Garity?—Coach and Tami are available to help pretty much everybody, with tough-but-fair advice that can be appreciated both by liberals (help each other!) and conservatives. (Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!)
As a child of the ’80s, I was weaned on a steady diet of sitcoms featuring unconventional families, from Diff’rent Strokes to Just The Ten Of Us. So in moments of extreme self-pity, there were plenty of fantasy parents to choose from. I loved Elyse and Steven Keaton of Family Ties, mostly because they were aging hippies and the polar opposite of my square (but wonderful!) parents. But if I had to pick just one, I’d go with Kate & Allie. Maybe this answer is a bit of a cheat, since Kate and Allie were not spouses, but divorced best friends raising their children together in a West Village townhouse, but the point of the show was that they had created a new kind of family for themselves. Though Kate and Allie weren’t lesbians, the show’s premise was still pretty revolutionary: Who needs a man when you have a best friend? Their relationship even paralleled a traditional marriage—Kate worked as a travel agent, while Allie stayed at home and did the cooking and cleaning. The best parts of the show were the little vignettes that opened each episode, where Kate and Allie would wander the streets of New York making witty observations. They were both just so cool (especially Kate), and the show never made them seem sad or desperate or lame because they weren’t married. Kate and Allie made single parenting seem like one long sleepover party.
As a child of divorce and a child of the ’80s, I’m going to use this opportunity to present my own version of My Two Dads. Why? Well, for starters, I wanted a hook to my answer. But more importantly? I got sick of trying to pick between Keith Mars, father of the titular hero on Veronica Mars, and Jack Bristow, father to Sydney on J.J. Abrams’ Alias. I mean, come on: Who would dare step to me on the playground with those two as my parental figures? Sure, Keith is more emotionally available than Jack, but it’s not like either man hesitated for a second when it came to defending their child in peril. And Lord knows peril would be involved, knowing this duo. But with Keith’s calm yet professional approach, combined with Spy Daddy’s general bad-assery, I think I would be prepared to handle just about anything life could possibly throw at me. If I had to pick the last people I’d want to be my parents, though, I’d go with… Well, pretty much anyone on Lost. But that’s another AVQ&A for another time, I’ll wager. For now, I’ll just rock out with Keith and not fear the reaper.
It might seem crazy to suggest that I’d like to escape into a world where I was the spawn of The Addams Family’s Gomez and Morticia Addams (John Astin and Carolyn Jones), especially given that the show’s theme song opens by providing you with five perfectly good reasons why you probably should stay as far away from their gene pool as possible. But just because they’re creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky, and altogether ooky doesn’t mean they’re bad parents. Think about it: How often did you ever really see either Gomez or Morticia lose their temper? Wednesday and Pugsley weren’t poster children for normalcy, but given the environment in which they were raised, it’s a testament to their parents’ even-keeled nature that the kids were able to make it in public school at all. Gomez is about as cool a dad as you could ever hope for, and during those occasional moments when he takes it a little too over the top, Morticia is there to rein him back in. Also, how can you go wrong with the wardrobe? Even if I had to endure a chubby childhood wearing nothing but horizontally striped shirts, at least I’d be able to look forward to a future filled with exquisitely-tailored black pinstripe suits.
As I’ve remarked many times over the years of writing for this here Internet spectacular, I’m adopted, and while I love my parents like everybody who had a good childhood loves their parents, I also did the typical adopted-kid thing and wondered who my birth parents might be. Fortunately, TV has provided me with an answer: My parents are clearly Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of The X-Files, and I am their long-lost son William, whom they gave up for adoption in the show’s misbegotten final season. William, of course, had special powers, and while I’m still working on those, I obviously have my father’s fascination with the strange, unbelievable, and unknown, as well as my mother’s healthy dose of skepticism and wry sense of humor. And while, yes, I love my parents, they’re just going to have to understand when my genetic lineage comes to the fore, and my birth parents have to come calling so we can fight off the alien invasion of 2012. Because that’s what this is all leading up to. What? Please stop backing away from me slowly. I CAN MOVE STUFF WITH MY MIND. I CAN!
For me, no television parents can compare with Howard and Marion Cunningham of Happy Days. Bosley was the perfect father: warm, genuine, and always there for his children. Marion was his perfect complement. Bosley’s paternal, comforting presence made the world seem like a kind, hospitable place. That was the essence of Happy Days’ appeal: It was like a warm bath after a hard day’s work. It was television comfort food, and nothing was more comforting than Tom Bosley in his easy chair.
If Lauren Graham hadn’t made her so convincingly real, Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls might have seemed like a fantasy figure. After all, who wouldn’t want a mom who was as much friend as parent, always quick with a witty line, and ready to make sure you grew up listening to all the coolest bands? Fortunately, Graham always made her seem human, and vulnerable, too, and the show’s writers, following the lead of showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, made sure the give-and-take between mother and daughter didn’t stop at the clever banter. Gilmore Girls portrayed parenthood as a relationship between two people who both learned from each other, not a situation in which one had all the answers for the other. She wasn’t perfect, but she never stopped trying.