For decades, TV fathers came in one of three flavors: idealized, bumbling, or absent. When University of Massachusetts researcher Erica Scharrer studied fifty years of father representations on TV, she found a steady trend toward depicting fathers as fools, as we moved from the wise, authoritative Father Knows Best of the 1950s to inept, impulsive characters like Homer Simpson or Hal of Malcolm in the Middle in the 1990s. In the early 21st century, America saw more and more dads just missing in action, as in Gilmore Girls.
However, when our crack team of TV watchers surveyed today’s paternal landscape, we found representations of fathers have evolved and diversified quite a lot. There are still one-note dads who set the kitchen on fire cooking dinner, but we’re also seeing more and more complex depictions of fathers as learning and growing alongside their children. Here are seven shows that highlight the best in 21st century fatherhood.
Jefferson Pierce in Black Lightning
By Shawn Taylor
I’m one that got away. I escaped the hood. I went to university and collected letters after my name. I stayed out of jail; I did not succumb to drug addiction. Married for almost twenty years, with a healthy and happy daughter who has not known anything but love and kindness from her family. I’m alive and made it well into my forties. While I’m not an anomaly, I am but a few from my old neighborhood who can make these claims.
This is what drew me to Jefferson Pierce from the CW program Black Lightning—a show that does black male life, especially black fatherhood, right. Especially for those of us who are visible in our communities. Pierce is a superhero with electrical powers, but I identify more with the ordinary man, played with an affable grace by Cress Williams. Like Pierce, I am a school administrator and community worker with children. What Pierce demonstrates is the astounding strain of keeping your house and working to strengthen your community, while keeping other people’s children safe and educated.
What’s most fascinating about Pierce is the way he demonstrates love in each sphere of his life. In the community, Pierce treats everyone equally. From the dope dealer to the concerned parent, all get the same treatment. His consistency and integrity make him a community pillar. As a school administrator, he has high standards. He’s not just about the academics—although those are important—he sees the students holistically, with lives that have nothing to do with school. He loves his daughters by trusting them and letting them make their own decisions. He will intervene when necessary but respects his daughters’ growth trajectory. In return, his daughters seek advice and comfort from him.
He also knows when he needs to shut up and face reality. When his eldest daughter, Anissa Pierce (played with a quiet rage by Nafessa Williams) begins to manifest powers of her own, he is initially against her following in his footsteps. But when she’s determined to fight the same crime he’s been fighting for years, he trains her. His training includes the psychic and the physical costs of being a costumed vigilante. Their patrol scenes are some of the best parent/child moments I’ve seen in a science-fiction show.
Rarely, if ever, do we see fathers—especially black fathers of daughters—portrayed in such a way. Most media trade in the bigoted trope of either the absent father or the overbearing and controlling father, or the father who engenders fear. Jefferson Pierce is in a completely different class. He’s kind, thoughtful, mischievous, affectionate, and works diligently to ensure his children learn both real world and philosophical lessons.
Andre “Dre” Johnson in black-ish
By Heather Gibbs Flett
The dad in the ABC comedy-drama black-ish is Andre “Dre” Johnson—and he’s one of the greats.
Dre considers himself a modern-day family patriarch living happily in the ‘burbs. He’s an ad man in the “urban division” and his wife, Rainbow, is a doctor. The extended family includes five children and several over-involved parents, aunties, and neighbors. Most episodes entail a typical household conflict that Dre workshops over the conference table with his coworkers. While these meetings are generally ridiculous and lack all sense of personal boundaries, they also serve to explore real-world challenges with commentary from many sides. Through the dual lens of extended family comedy and workplace farce, Dre has tackled such atypical sitcom fare as mass incarceration, the N word, marital balance, police violence, and the sex talk.
What can real-world fathers learn from Dre Johnson on black-ish? Over the course of each 22-minute episode, Dre often tests his own beliefs and considers other people’s divergent opinions. He has a lot to learn, and we see him do it. He has come around to supporting his children in their choices even when they differ widely from his own worldview (his oldest son and namesake is a huge nerd). Dre acts as a role model to his children (and my kids, the viewers!) for how much he respects and cherishes his wife, daughters, and mother.
We all carry wounds and baggage from our childhood that we would be well served to leave behind—and Dre is no exception. He consistently strives to be a better father and spouse than what he experienced as a kid. Through frequent flashbacks, we can see that he grew up with a strained relationship with his own father. Some of the most heartbreakingly realistic dialog is when he is stuck between his wife and mother. Andre wants to provide the best he can for his children while preventing them from becoming too soft and suburban. The tension makes for great television.
Bob Belcher of Bob’s Burgers
By Heather Bryant
Bob is a revelation, unlike any father I’ve seen on TV. He’s honest with his kids and encourages them to explore their own identities. He always comes through for them, whether it’s going undercover at a conference for grown men who love the animated horse show his daughter loves in order to get her horse doll back or playing an elaborate game of pretend to help his youngest through a dentist appointment.
Many TV fathers perpetuate the trope of the overly protective father who can’t or won’t abide any conversation related to his daughter’s sexuality. Bob’s not like that. He does an admirable job of being a fully present father who talks through these issues with his teenage daughter. In one notable episode, his oldest daughter Tina is upset about being in a school play with a message she doesn’t like.
Bob: I know puberty positivity is something that’s important to you and that’s good but if doing this play is making you say something you don’t believe in then maybe you shouldn’t do it.
Tina: Even if I said I would?
Bob: Yeah because whether you kiss anyone or not, you’re in charge of your own mouth, who you kiss with it and what you say with it.
He’s constantly showing his family that he’s there for them. He barely blinks at his eldest daughter’s process of figuring out her adolescence and awareness of boys and her own sexuality and his son’s process of identity and expression. His kids reflect their parenting by being confident and comfortable in their identities and are capable problem solvers.
Prax Meng in The Expanse
By Jeremy Adam Smith
The crew of the good ship Rociante is at the heart of the planet-hopping science-fiction drama The Expanse. The four core members—Jim, Naomi, Alex, and Amos—form a kind of makeshift family in part because they are so cut off from their own families and from the rest of humanity. At one point, Alex—the ship’s pilot—calls his wife and son on Mars to tell them that what he is doing on the Rociante is more important than being a husband and father. Alex is the most most mild-mannered member of the core crew, and yet he, like all of them, still has a certain amount of skill in violent situations.
That’s why adding the caring, thoughtful Prax to the crew (however temporarily) was a stroke of genius.
Prax is a botanist on Ganymede, where he quietly studies soybeans and tends to the station’s ecosystem. Then war strikes. In the aftermath of a battle, Prax is separated from his small daughter Mei. He becomes a refugee and, through a complicated series of events, enlists the crew to try to find and rescue his daughter, a decision that changes the emotional dynamic of the ship and reveals previously hidden qualities in the characters.
The biggest impact is on Amos. Deadly, taciturn, and self-contained, at first glance the hyper-masculine Amos appears to be completely different from Prax. As the series goes on, however, the two men form a bond that is touching in its vulnerability and platonic intimacy. They save each other’s lives, as people do in shows like The Expanse, but more than that, they protect and encourage each other’s best qualities. Prax elicits traits from Amos that his environment normally discourages: simplicity, loyalty, determination, even a touch of tenderness.
For his part, Amos risks his life to protect Prax’s gentleness as well as his connection with his daughter, as is very well captured in the scene embedded above. The mere existence of the father-daughter relationship that Prax brings to the ship elevates the entire crew, making them better than they would otherwise be. As Amos tells Prax: “I don’t know shit about parenting. But what I do know is that a kid needs at least one person who never gives up on them, no matter what.” Prax is that person for Mei—but the two men also never give up on each other.
Joel Hammond in Santa Clarita Diet
By Heather Bryant
I didn’t have a father who was present in my life growing up. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve always evaluated pop-culture dads through the lens of adult me shopping for the paternal qualities younger me would have wanted and needed.
Younger me was a fiercely independent, observant person. What kind of father appeals to such a girl? The kind who displays a balance of respect and trust in their child’s intellect and ability with the capacity to still be protective and loving. The kind like… Joel Hammond, the startlingly supportive husband and father from the Netflix original series Santa Clarita Diet.
Joel (played by Timothy Olyphant) faces all the challenges of trying to parent an independent, observant 16 year old. He’s also coping with his wife’s new identity as a one of the living dead. Joel has to somehow balance work, parenting, and a wife who craves human flesh—-and through it all Joel does an admirable job of being there while clearly struggling with the new reality.
It’s a quirky premise, well executed. At first, Joel tries to protect their daughter from the scary things in life but he gradually realizes that part of that is learning to trust her to cope with things and empowering her to participate (sometimes almost too much) in their new reality. He also does everything he can to keep the connection going between Abby and her zombie-mom.
By episode 4 of the first season, Joel has started to realize that things aren’t going back to normal anytime soon and Abby is having a hard time caring about things like school with everything that’s happening. He takes Abby for a motorcycle ride to a place he and Sheila used to go in high school and they share a moment of screaming about how weird things are before resolving to figure things out.
Abby: Can mom still love?
Joel: What? Of course she can.
Abby: Are you sure?
Abby: That’s a weird smile.
Joel: I’m freaking out, man!
Abby: I’m freaking out too!
Joel: It’s so weird!
Abby: So f*****g weird!
Sarek in Star Trek: Discovery
By Jason Sperber
Lots of fans grumbled when it was revealed that the CBS web-only series Star Trek: Discovery would center on the pre-original series adventures of the beloved Mr. Spock’s heretofore-unknown human foster sister. When it was further revealed that their legendary diplomat father, Sarek, would feature in the show’s storytelling, there was even more grumbling.
I was not among the grumblers, though I could understand the complaints. Why did the powers-that-be insist on the new show being not only a prequel, but one directly tied by characters’ familial connections, to specific, well-known, well-loved characters? How would they explain huge continuity gaps that those choices made manifest—namely, the fact that Discovery’s protagonist, Michael Burnham, was never mentioned by her foster brother or her foster father in decades’ worth of content set in the new show’s future?
And how would this family relationship play out, given that Sarek—the key connection between Trek past and Trek future here—was…well, how should I put this? Sarek, as shown through his few, brief, but canonically important appearances throughout the franchise, was not a very good dad. (Franchise-wide spoilers ahead!) The honorable ambassador to the United Federation of Planets from the logic-happy planet of Vulcan was introduced as estranged from his half-human son over his decision to join Starfleet.
In Discovery, we are told that Sarek and his wife, Amanda, took in young Michael Burnham after her parents were killed by Klingons. She is raised as a sort of experiment, the first human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center and the Vulcan Science Academy. Sarek saves her life by giving her a piece of his katra (the Vulcan soul, for lack of a better term) when the Vulcan Learning Center is bombed by logic extremists who aren’t fans of Sarek’s literalization of the Vulcan ideology of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” This katra-sharing later manifests as a life-saving transgalactic mind-meld connection between foster father and foster daughter, which, of course, is ironic because they, too, are estranged. Why? Because we later learn that Sarek chose his biological half-Vulcan son over his adopted all-human daughter when given an ultimatum over who could go on to the Vulcan Expeditionary Group—which his favorite son then unknowingly threw back in his face by not even wanting to go to the Vulcan Science Academy like his dad.
And how does Vulcan’s Number One Dad deal with all the guilt? Logically, by not speaking to his children, speaking about his children, and by hiding things in his steel-trap mind and pushing his children out of there, literally.
All of this subtextual retconning is supposed to make sense of all the past/future plotholes and make Sarek and his parental relationships more complex. Yes, he thought he was doing it all for the good of Vulcan/the Federation/his family/his children; yes, he felt really bad about it all (which is doubly bad in its ramifications for someone who isn’t supposed to feel); and yes, his special connection to Michael and his actions to save her multiple times and aid her, even in parallel universes, are supposed to be the proof that he cares for her, in his own way—even if she never gets mentioned again. But bottom line, for all his trying, Sarek is a way better ambassador than a father.
As a multiracial child growing up with few media images of himself, I found Sarek, for all his stubbornness and faults, important because he made Spock possible. I was a nerdy mixed kid who wore an I.D.I.C. (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) pin, and Sarek crossed lines to make the Vulcan philosophy real, in his son. And now, this new version of Sarek, again, for all his faults, continues to teach me things. I’m a father now, and Sarek’s literal self-sacrifice for his adopted daughter, which creates and underscores their unbreakable connection, reminds me that a father must live his ideals for his children, and his guilt-driven mistakes remind me that I must always communicate with my children, no matter how difficult, because it’s about me, and they need to know that.
The Dads of This is Us
By Jeremy Adam Smith
Of all the shows on this list, the NBC series This is Us is the one that is most specifically about fatherhood. And, in many ways, the show harks back to a much earlier era in American TV, when the fathers were all strong and wise breadwinners.
Interestingly, however, This is Us is also about imperfection and how you live with it. The fathers of the Pearson family are all, in various ways, wish-fulfillment dads, and their flaws are part of the fantasy. They are alcoholics, drug addicts, given to extreme idealism, and mistake-prone, but they always, somehow, solve their problems and in the end show up for their wives and kids. When Rebecca tells Jack to stop drinking, he just does—no relapses or expensive trips to rehab for him. Randall is a successful attorney and incredibly ripped physical specimen whose problem, says is his wife, is that “he’s too good.” Randall’s biological father has a past as a cocaine addict, but when we encounter him, he’s a world-weary and sagacious granddad.
This sometimes makes the show just a little too pat, but This is Us doesn’t want its audience to feel bad. Its goal is to lift us up and to remind us of what we could be, if we tried. “Please do not tell me what my husband would do if he loved me,” says Rebecca at one point of crisis. “My husband’s a freaking superhero.” That’s pretty much, in a nutshell, the vision of fatherhood in This is Us.
Is that bad thing? Given how far TV has gone, during the past 70 years, in showing fathers as failures, perhaps not. There’s something to be said for seeking out the good in the people we love and then amplifying it to others as much as possible. As Rebecca tells her adopted son Randall: “Our marriage wasn’t perfect, it’s true. But none are. Your father wasn’t perfect either, but he was pretty damn close. As close as they come.”