The Best Dads on Television This Year Are A Complicated Lot

4 years ago

I watched the latest episode of Louie last night, and it made me think about how many television shows this year are grappling with the father-daughter relationship. Don's relationship with Sally is the emotional heart of Mad Men, The Blacklist has dangled the "dad question" throughout, and Sheriff and Maggie are a fascinating center to Resurrection, to name a few.

Image: FX

Thinking about that particular part of the representation of fathers in the TV of this season made me think about who I would name the best fathers on the small screen right now. It's Father's Day, after all.

Truthfully, fatherhood hasn't fared too well in the era of the anti-hero. Don Draper may have had an amazing scene full of connection with Sally at the diner this spring, but overall he's a deplorable excuse for a dad, and the very reason his parenting is so interesting is because we get to explore the tension of bad fatherhood bumping up against the few moments of good that we hunger for. But that doesn't add up to a Father Knows Best kind of character to celebrate. Does Don even know his youngest son's name? I could ask the same question of President Fitz Grant in Scandal. Or Peter Florrick, the Not-So-Great Husband in The Good Wife.

In fact, if I were looking for bad dads, I could have my pick by scouring the best shows of the year. William Macy brilliantly portrays an outrageously horrible father in Shameless, Orange Is the New Black's most father-to-be, Bennett, is trying to rise to the occasion, but there's one major problem in his role in that guard/inmate relationships are rape. The Lannisters may always pay their debts, but no Father of the Year awards are headed their way. 

But in honor of Father's Day, I want to celebrate good dads, so I assessed the landscape a little deeper. While very few great dads jumped out at me I did find some good, albeit complicated, examples. Maybe that's the message in the media right now. Fatherhood is complicated and evolving, and we still have a lot to figure out while also celebrating the good at play. 

Here are some portrayals that interest me, some of the better dads on television from the shows I've been watching, because I think they have a lot to tell us about how fathers are viewed right now.

Louis C.K, Louie

This season has shown Louie to be pretty horrible in most aspects of his life. He's been wretched to women (and to himself in actualizing a real relationship), he's a selfish friend and he barely shows up for his own career. The best of Louie is represented by his scenes with his daughters. This season we've seen him agonizingly rushing across the city to help his daughters during a storm, rescuing one who was alone in a subway station, and intercepting his other daughter when she began experimenting with drugs. Even more poignantly, he thinks hard about how to understand them, when to advocate for them and how to do right by the complex young women they are becoming. 


Ethan Duncan, Orphan Black

Image: BBC America

Complicated in the blinded-me-with-science way. Orphan Black is questioning everything thing we think we know about mom and dad tropes, pathways to being born, nature vs. nurture, and on and on. Duncan is the mack daddy of the clones, though we don't know at this point what that even entirely means. He was one of the geneticists responsible for Project LEDA along with his wife Rachel, and they also served as adoptive parents to clone Rachel. He didn't do a great job raising her, to say the least, but he does seem to want to help the health crisis the clones are facing, so that earns him a Father's Day nod at the very least.


Cal Morrison, Orphan Black

My favorite father this year might be Kira's dad. Alleged dad? We don't have genetic proof yet, and there's a sense of mystery about Cal and his magical mystery tech van. But Season 2 did show him immediately accepting Kira without question and offering himself as a reliable, protective parental figure despite his history of being burnt by her mother. Plus, he's independent, principled, resourceful and looks hunky in plaid shirts. Cool dad to have. Unless he's corrupt, or a plant. We'll see.


Tad Horvath, Girls

Hannah's dad might be on the weak side, but it's hard to complain about Peter Scolari as a dad who is kind, interested in his narcissistic daughter's ongoing saga, able to cheer enthusiastically at her successes (that scene on the phone when she received the Iowa acceptance letter!) and still offers her financial help when she's struggling. And then there's that naked scene from the first season, always in the back of our minds.


Gus Grimley, Fargo

I didn't expect to find a great dad in the brutal, cynical first season of Fargo, but there are actually two. Molly Solverson's dad is adorable, diner milkshakes and all. And single dad Gus was a quiet, compelling force throughout the rough Fargo narrative. His daughter was his touchstone, a challenge and a beacon, and viewers are rooting for a happy ending for his little family, if that's possible up there. 


Jeremiah Kaan, House of Lies

Why is Marty so bad when Jeremiah is so wonderful? I wish I could cheer for Marty, because he has his moments as a father, he's certainly a better parent than his ex-wife is, and it's clear he's trying. Unfortunately his biases really hurt his son so he has repair work to do before I can celebrate him, and while he's brilliant and ambitious and grounded by his own self-love and passions more than anything.  Thankfully there's a better father on the show in his own dad. House of Lies does a great job of showing Marty's immorality juxtaposed with his home life—and the scenes where Jeremiah is showing unconditional love and acceptance for Roscoe while teaching Marty how to be a good father are the absolute best. 


Mike Heck, The Middle

Mike is a solid sitcom dad from a better time. Decent, accountable, committed. He even works at a quarry, fer heck's sake. He's sort of a miracle given what we've come to know about his father and brother, which makes Mike all the more worthy of celebration.


Jackson Gibbs, NCIS

The death of Ralph Waite, who played a recurring role as Gibbs' father, was honored in the season finale of NCIS. Viewers carried our memories of Waite's esteemed career along into the narrative of Gibbs' grief, so that was quite a heavy moment in television this year. Sad as it is, remembering John Walton actually seems like the most fitting way to celebrate fathers in television overall.

I'm sure my picks are entirely limited by my television viewing habits, so I know I've missed some important dads. Who are your favorite TV fathers right now?